Will Gray

Gray Matter: Will Schumacher join Mercedes?

Will Gray

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The dream of uniting Michael Schumacher and Mercedes refuses to die after Norbert Haug failed to deny the link earlier this week - but is there actually anything to suggest it could really happen?

Those at the forefront of Formula One - namely Bernie Ecclestone and new FIA president Jean Todt - certainly have an affection for Schumacher and both understand the promotional potential of having him back in the series.

During Schumacher's aborted comeback earlier this year, Ecclestone admitted he would "like to see him stay for a lot of seasons".

Meanwhile Todt, who spent much of his F1 career working with the multiple world champion, well understands the weight Schumacher's involvement would give to the FIA flagship series as it faces questions over its status as a sporting spectacle following the 'crashgate' saga and the loss of several major motoring brands that once enhanced its stature.

A Schumacher return with a new manufacturer team would be almost the perfect recovery route. And if Ecclestone is involved - which he undoubtedly would be - then it's hard to rule it out.

The arguments for the move are clear: Schumacher's F1 career was highly influenced by Mercedes (they paid for his first drive with Jordan, according to Eddie Jordan); he clearly still has the desire and the racing acumen to take on the best; his Ferrari role has been reducing since Todt pulled away from the team; Mercedes have always been keen to lure him to join them; the company's new team is born out of world champions Brawn and is capable of producing another title contender; he now has time to test and get up to speed; and, finally, several key parties are tip-toeing around the subject without issuing a flat denial.

Perhaps the most important element, however, is that Schumacher's links with Ferrari are long but his roots are with Mercedes and, as with many people in the paddock, he has a lot of belief in Ross Brawn.

 When Virgin spoke of doing a deal with Brawn, Richard Branson made it clear that it was because of his admiration for the man behind the team (and, of course, he knew it would be good, quick publicity). Likewise, when Mercedes bought in it was because they believed in Brawn (and, of course, knew it was a quick and cheap way to get a self-named team racing at the front).

Schumacher, meanwhile, won all his world titles with Brawn and has massive respect for him (and, of course, without a space at Ferrari he knows that if he wants to return Brawn gives him the chance to fight at the front).

From Mercedes' side, you'd have to be crazy to think they wouldn't want him to join.

Formula One may be about racing, but in business terms it's all about publicity - and is a line-up of Rosberg and (if rumours are to be believed) Heidfeld really going to grab the headlines? Not really.

Even if they are running at the front, names like Alonso at Ferrari, Hamilton and world champion Button at McLaren and the off-the-wall Red Bull style of Vettel are more enticing story subjects. Mercedes, really, need a big name.

But, as Niki Lauda - who made two comebacks in his career - said back in July, any return will be Schumacher's decision, and his alone.

The disappointment he displayed over his failed comeback this season suggests Schumacher wants to return to the grid and the fact Nico Rosberg's contract is understood to prevent any team-mate earning more than him will not be an issue, as there are plenty of ways around that through other non-F1 Mercedes commitments, not to mention the other commercial agreements Schumacher could secure.

The only risk of return is to his reputation.

Would he be fast enough, and could he manage a full season? As long as he has enough testing time, the pace should be there, but the stamina could be under question. His injuries have only just healed and he would be 41 by the time of the first race, the oldest driver on the grid in 14 years since Nigel Mansell came back with McLaren.

Mansell, however, will admit his fitness was questionable while Schumacher is still a lean, mean racing machine. So if he wants to do it, there is no doubting that he can.

The problem is, this rumour gained momentum out of dreams more than concrete evidence, with a meeting in Abu Dhabi causing tongues to wag out of control - and subsequent comments from Schumacher's press agent Sabine Kehm, who told The Times this is a "beautiful story" but there are "no negotiations going on", should have ended speculation.

But back in July, when speculation built about Schumacher's return to replace injured Felipe Massa at Ferrari, his manager Willi Weber said "whoever sits in the car at the next race, it will not be Michael Schumacher. I am not 100 per cent sure, I am 200 per cent sure" - then Schumacher announced his comeback a few days later.

This week, in contrast, Weber told German weekly Bunte (apparently one of Schumacher's favourite publications) that Schumacher's neck is "completely fine" and added the German "could drive for victories".

Brawn, meanwhile, revealed he did discuss the future with Schumacher during that tongue-releasing meeting in Abu Dhabi, but that as he only wanted a temporary comeback and Brawn are looking long-term, the team boss admitted: "I don't think we're going to be together."

So who do you believe?

Personally, I would take Kehm's word for it. Straight down the line and always one to issue a "no comment" rather than try to steer a story, her complete denial of ongoing negotiations will for certain be an honest truth.

But those who still wish to dream can argue that her comment was made last Saturday, so with Christmas the deadline for Mercedes to reveal their second driver, there is still time for negotiations to open.

Maybe. Maybe not. But if it doesn't happen, Mercedes, Schumacher, and Formula One may have missed a great opportunity.

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