Sunday, 27 December 2009

The legend is back - Michael Schumacher signs for Mercedes

After a three year absence from motorsport's premier category, Michael Schumacher has agreed to come out of retirement to race for Mercedes in Formula 1 next year. Having made his debut in 1992 with JordanGP, Schumacher went on to win two World Championships with Benetton in 1993 and 1994, before moving on to Ferrari where he won five back to back titles in the early part of this decade. Winning seven world titles and 91 grands prix makes the German legend statistically the greatest Formula 1 driver ever. Schumacher retired from Formula 1 at the end of 2006, after a 14-year spell with Ferrari.

2009 Driver's World Champion Jenson Button left his BrawnGP team at the end of the season and signed for McLaren, as soon as BrawnGP were taken over by Mercedes. The other BrawnGP driver Rubens Barrichello had already been confirmed to have signed with Williams for next season. In his place, former Williams driver Nico Rosberg became the first driver to sign up for Mercedes. Since then, Schumacher had been linked with Mercedes but all sides remained totally silent on the matter.

After retiring from competitive racing back in 2006, Schumacher seemed to be pretty content with not having to deal with the pressures and tensions of racing in Formula 1. He had remained on the payroll with Ferrari, working with the Italian firm as a consultant. Schumacher did take time to enjoy karting every now and then, some Formula 1 test sessions with Ferrari and some testing in motorbike racing. However, when asked, Schumacher always said that he his happy with his life now which gives him the chance to spend a lot of time with his family, and has always ruled out a comeback to professional racing.

Back in the summer, when Ferrari's Felipe Massa had a terrible accident during the Qualifying session of the Hungarian Grand Prix, Schumacher was approached by Ferrari to come out of retirement and act as a temporary replacement until Massa is fit enough to be back. Schumacher took up the offer but had to cancel the plan in the last minute when his doctors said that his neck was not fit enough to take the strain of the G-forces that he will encounter in a Formula 1 car. The German injured his neck in early 2009 when he had an accident during a test session with a German superbike racing team.

Although the comeback plan did not materialise then, what it seemed to have done is relight the fire of competition and a passion for racing within Michael Schumacher. So at the end of November, when Ross Brawn approached Schumacher with an offer of racing with the backing of Mercedes, it was too tempting for the German to refuse. The team had won both the Constructors' and the Drivers' World Championships this year, they have some great people working for them including master tactician Ross Brawn - with whom Schumacher had won all seven of his titles - and on top of all that, they now have the full factory backing of Mercedes-Benz. So Schumacher is confident that he will have a fast car for next year, a car good enough to allow him to challenge for a record eighth world title.   

When the comeback plans failed earlier in the summer, Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo looked for other ways to get Schumacher back on the track. He even approached the FIA to let the team run an optional third car in certain races, to allow Schumacher to race again in Formula 1. However, it did not seem like Schumacher was quite up to make a full time return, and in any case, Ferrari had signed up Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa as their lead drivers for the next few years. The pairing of Massa and Alonso offers better long term prospect to Ferrari than Schumacher, who is turning 41 years old in a few days time. Since the German now does seem to be ready for a full season of racing, di Montezemolo was happy to release Schumacher from his consultancy role at Ferrari to let him race for Mercedes. Between 2000 and 2004, Ferrari gave Schumacher some great cars and in return Schumacher gave back five World Championships, along with contributing to the Constructors's Championships as well. So in spite of the fact that he is now part of a rival team, Schumacher and Ferrari will always have a special relationship. As a Ferrari fan first and foremost, but also as a die-hard Schumacher fan, I genuinely thank him for everything he has done for Ferrari and wish him all the best for the future.  

Schumacher says that the three year absence from the sport has given him back all the energy that he needs. He is absolutely ready to take on the challenge from much younger drivers such as Fernando Alonso, Felipe Massa, Sebastian Vettel, Lewis Hamilton and so on. His signing of a three year contract with Mercedes means that this is not just a one-off return, but another full three years of racing. So he might be the oldest driver on the grid, but he is statistically by far the best of the lot, and he comes back with a serious focus on a potential eighth world title. One thing is for sure, 2010 is going to be a cracker of a season!

It's just a little over a month to go before the teams start their pre-season testing in February. It is only then that we will get a good taster of what the different teams' cars are like. Until then, drive safely and a happy new year!

Monday, 21 December 2009

Round-up of all the latest off-season developments in Formula 1

The season may have ended back in November with the inaugural Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, but the world of Formula 1 hardly ever stops moving. So here is a summary of all the latest developments in the sport that have taken place since the 2009 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

Toyota have announced that they are pulling out of Formula 1 with immediate effect. The announcement came from the Toyota Motor Company headquarters in Tokyo just days after the season ended in Abu Dhabi. Having made their Formula 1 debut in 2002, Toyota has been one of the highest spending teams on the grid, often out-spending the likes of Ferrari and McLaren. However, with the Japanese car maker facing its biggest financial loss ever on the back of the worldwide recession and its Formula 1 team yet to achieve its coveted first victory, the bosses at Tokyo decided that they had no other option but to pull out of the sport to allow them to concentrate more on their core business. The future of all the employees at Toyota's Formula 1 base at Cologne is still unclear.

Formula 1's tyre supplier Bridgestone has announced that they will be withdrawing from the sport as well when their current tyre supply contract runs out at the end of 2010. Bridgestone has been the sole tyre supplier in Formula 1 since 2007, after French tyre manufacturer Michelin pulled out at the end of 2006. Bridgestone say that their decision to withdraw came after a strategic re-think of their business due to the economic crisis. The FIA say that it will now look for other tyre makers to bid for a new contract for 2011 and onwards.

Amid massive uncertainties, French car maker Renault has sold a majority stake of its Formula 1 team to Luxembourg based investment company Genii Capital. After all the crash-gate scandal engulfing the team earlier in the year that led to the departure of its team bosses Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds, Renault was on the verge of quitting Formula 1. However, the deal with Genii Capital now mean that the team will remain in the sport and will continue to use the Renault brand in Formula 1.

After German manufacturer BMW announced their withdrawal from Formula 1 earlier this year, the Formula 1 team originally founded by Peter Sauber was left in severe uncertainty. However, after weeks of negotiation, BMW decided to sell the team back to Peter Sauber and the FIA has granted the team a place on the 2010 Formula 1 grid. The Sauber F1 team will use Ferrari customer engines to power their cars next year.

The Lotus brand is coming back to Formula 1 after a hiatus of almost 15 years. Lotus cars is now owned by Malaysian car maker Proton, which is a fully owned subsidiary of the Malaysian government. With the backing of the Malaysian government and Malaysia based low-cost airline Air Asia, Malaysia is launching their own Formula 1 team under the name Lotus F1 racing. They will take Toyota's place on the grid next year. The team will be headed by Air Asia chief executive Tony Fernandes and the entire operation will eventually be based in Malaysia, near the Sepang circuit which hosts the Formula 1 Malaysian Grand Prix.

Richard Branson's Virgin Group has confirmed that it is taking over one of next year's debutants Manor Grand Prix. Manor GP, or as now called Virgin Racing, is based in Sheffield, England. Virgin also announced at the same time that it has signed former Toyota driver Timo Glock and Brazilian rookie Lucas di Grassi as its lead drivers.

2009 Driver's World Champion Jenson Button has left his BrawnGP team and signed up for McLaren. After months of negotiations with the BrawnGP team bosses, that went on even during the season, the two parties failed to come to an agreement regarding Button's salary. Button took a huge pay cut when BrawnGP was salvaged from the ashes of Honda last winter, and after winning the championship in 2009, Button was just looking to go back to his previous salary levels. However, he failed to come to terms with BrawnGP and instead signed up for McLaren where he felt he has a better future. An all-British line-up of Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button in McLaren next year is a pretty tasty prospect indeed!

Finally, 2009 Championship winner BrawnGP has been taken over by German car manufacturer Mercedes-Benz. The team has been renamed to Mercedes Grand Prix, and they have signed Malaysian oil company Petronas as their title sponsor. Mercedes Motorsport president Norbert Haug confirmed that former BrawnGP team bosses Ross Brawn and Nick Fry will remain in charge. This is the first time since 1955 that Mercedes is starting a season with its factory backed works team. For the past several years, Mercedes has mainly been involved with Formula 1 as primary engine supplier and strategic partner of McLaren. While the engine supply deal will continue as it is now, McLaren would now become more of an independent manufacturer using Mercedes customer engines. The legendary Silver Arrows brand would obviously be seen on the Mercedes cars next year. German driver Nico Rosberg has been confirmed to be Mercedes' first driver. He swaps his place with Rubens Barrichello, who takes Rosberg's place in Williams. Rosberg's team mate in Mercedes is still to be confirmed, but there are strong rumours that seven times World Champion Michael Schumacher may come out of retirement to form an all-German pair at Mercedes next year. Schumacher is currently contracted to Ferrari as a consultant to their road car division.