|Even the most cynical observers would have to admit: the 2012 season has started in tremendous fashion. Not since 2003 has four different drivers taken out the first four events, and you have to go back a further 20 years for the last time that those four different drivers drove for four different teams. Indeed, that 1983 season saw five separate teams win the first five races, and many would not be surprised if that situation replicated itself in Spain this coming weekend.
Apart from the stability in the current rules and the ban on blown diffusers bringing the field closer together in 2012, the one factor that everyone is crediting for this unpredictability is the Pirelli tyres for this season. They have such a narrow optimal operating window. It is hard to get into the window and even harder to stay there, such is the risk of thermal degradation. At every circuit, much will depend on which team can get their set-up right for the prevailing track conditions and temperature.
But one man is going against the grain and raising his head above the parapet in leading a solo attack against this generation of Pirellis - Michael Schumacher. After the Bahrain GP, he voiced his displeasure at the fact that, in his view, everyone was being forced to drive well within their limits in order to try to make the tyres last. He now says that preserving these tyres is like driving on raw eggs. What makes Schumi's lonely campaign interesting is that potentially there's a lot more to it than meets the eye.
Firstly, it raises a fundamental philosophical question: what kind of racing is Formula 1 all about? Is a Grand Prix a sprint race or an endurance event? Length-wise it sits between the two. But it must be said that the refuelling era from 1994 to 2009 coincided with F1 reaching a much wider audience. The flat-out sprints between each stop during that period may well have fostered a broad expectation that F1 is about going as fast and as hard as possible, with qualifying-like laps from lights out to chequered flag.
But it has not always been so. In the turbo days of the 1980s, for instance, drivers had to carefully plan their races to manage fuel consumption and only sprint selectively. Prior to the ultra-reliable cars of the last decade especially, drivers were required to demonstrate mechanical sympathy and pace themselves over the length of a Grand Prix. Having said that, at least there was the opportunity to choose when to attack and be aggressive. Perhaps Michael's argument is that right now that isn't even an option.
|Arguably, though, that doesn't matter. It is an easy misconception to believe that just because a Grand Prix is now more like an endurance event, that somehow slowcoaches are rewarded. That is not true. Every race in history has been won by the driver who has legally covered a stipulated distance in the fastest time. That is the definition of a race. The driver may not have been afforded the opportunity to deploy his ultimate speed, but it has still been a question of who has gone quickest within a certain set of constraints.
So whether the race pace has been blistering or measured, we can rest assured in the knowledge that, true to what motor racing is fundamentally all about, F1 this year is still rewarding the drivers and cars who have gone the fastest within a given set of parameters. Indeed, the break from F1 being purely about short-range bursts is refreshing in that we can see who the truly great exponents are - those who can adapt, who can both sprint and pace themselves as the situation has demanded.
Which brings us back to Schumi and what may be another reason for the frustration that lies beneath his comments. One point which has largely gone unnoticed is that, of his 91 victories, only two were in non-refuelling races. One of those (Belgium 1992) was wet. The other, the Portuguese GP of 1993, was ironically an event which Michael won because he made a set of his Goodyear tyres last for 50 laps to fend off the faster Williams of Alain Prost on fresher rubber.
But the other 89 successes have all come in the refuelling era, and some of Michael's most famous wins have been in races where he took sprinting to a whole new level. Like Hungary in 1998 when he somehow found an extra 20 seconds over Mika Hakkinen in a stunning series of laps. Or the French GP of 2004 when he overcame the challenge of Fernando Alonso's Renault by switching to a four-stop strategy and driving like a man possessed for the whole afternoon.
So we know Schumacher can sprint, and maintain a level of intensity few could match. But is there an argument that he lacks light and shade, that he is unable or unwilling to take a more delicate approach in dry conditions when he needs to tread a finer line between aggression and preservation, some way off his ultimate speed? And if so, could there be even more questions over his true legacy, and his place amongst the all-time greats of the sport, which he risked when he decided to make a comeback?
|Those questions have already been there over the first two seasons of his return. Various reasonable excuses have been put forward as to why his lack of results should not hurt his aura. His age was inevitably a factor. He was undoubtedly ring-rusty, especially back in 2010. The limited pre-season testing and lack of in-season testing altogether put him at a disadvantage compared to all the other drivers in the top teams in terms of understanding the current trends in terms of car design and tyres.
But the 'lack of testing' explanation already didn't do Michael any favours. Did that mean that his dominance in the early 2000s was simply down to the fact that Ferrari's resources gave him an unfair advantage? Even factoring in the reality that the passage of time would have diminished his speed and skill a little bit, it has been hard to ignore the nagging thought that, without regular testing, one of the secrets of Schumi's success has been exposed and his reputation has already been dented as a result.
The potential implication that he only knows how to sprint and can't cope with a more conservative style might only risk damaging that reputation even further. That is exacerbated by the fact that 2012 is the year of no excuses for him. It's the third and final year of his comeback contract. If Mercedes haven't come up with a car that is at least partly tailored to his style, it never will. And indeed this Merc is the most competitive yet, and Nico Rosberg has already won a race in it.
Michael languishes on 2 points after four rounds, the same as the beleaguered Felipe Massa. A lot of that has come down to bad luck, of course, like his retirements in Australia and China and being hit by Romain Grosjean in Malaysia. But who knows whether the field will start to settle into more of a hierarchy now that the teams have returned to Europe. It may have been that the early flyaway races presented opportunities for some varied results, and Michael has not been able to capitalise.
By 2013 he'll be 44. There has not been a driver that old who has raced in F1 since Graham Hill in 1975. Who knows if he will continue beyond this season. Time is ticking and the pressure is on for him to secure his legacy. And that means performing this season, when he is being called upon to demonstrate skills he has not needed before, in a philosophy of F1 racing he is unaccustomed to. As a result, his rant against this year's Pirellis might be about a whole lot more than just tyres.
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