I think I was more surprised to learn that Ricky Martin was gay, than when I first heard that Michael Schumacher would be making a comeback to grand prix racing with Mercedes GP (nee Brawn GP).
Here was a man who clearly never wanted to retire and still had the racing-itch, desperately seeking an outlet to relieve the pain. That initially came in the form of motorcycling racing, which was met with limited success.
The seven-time F1 world champion was set to make a sensational return last year following Felipe Massa’s accident. That was until a nagging neck injury curtailed any chance of once again driving for the Prancing Horse.
But the seed was firmly planted, and with his dodgy neck given time to heal, it was fairly predictable that the 41-year-old would be courted by someone. Who better than the Ross Brawn led Mercedes GP outfit, the same Ross Brawn who masterminded Schumacher’s seven world titles?
Just as predictable perhaps was Kimi Raikkonen’s decision to ditch circuit racing altogether and head across to the WRC with the Red Bull-backed Citroen Junior Team.
With Fernando Alonso poised to jump in his grave, Raikkonen quickly discovered that there was no room at the inn that is F1, especially with what appeared to be a vastly over inflated view of his worth.
The Finn didn’t seem that particularly enthusiastic about F1 in the latter stages anyway, and dabbling in a few rally stages in a Fiat Punto mid-season helped decide how he wanted his immediate racing career to pan out.
Both Schumacher and Raikkonen have more than just an unsurprising change of job role in common. Neither has really lived up to the high expectations placed upon them at the start of the year.
If you believed the hordes of followers these two command, then by now Schumacher should have won every single race and Raikkonen should be giving Sebastien Loeb a run for his money. Stop sniggering.
Which begs the question: who is more likely to win first?
There were mutterings just last weekend that the Finn would be making his return to grand prix racing with Renault, financed by MasterCard’s many millions upon the credit card giant becoming title sponsor for the Enstone-based team.
Well Vitaly Petrov can breathe a sigh of relief, because according to this week’s Autosport magazine, Raikkonen looks set to re-sign with Citroen for another year. Rumour has it that Raikkonen is keen to develop a long-term relationship with Red Bull, with the possibility of jumping behind the wheel of Red Bull Racing’s RB8 in 2012.
I can’t see this happening, especially if Dr Helmut Marko has anything to say about the team’s line up in a couple of years time. Red Bull’s racing adviser has made no qualms in suggesting that Sebastien Beumi, a product of the Red Bull junior team, could find himself in the Red Bull ‘A-Team’ sooner rather than later.
So instead, I foresee Raikkonen’s long-term future in the WRC, becoming more involved, and with everything falling into place, realising his ambition with a win in rallying’s greatest contest.
His form this year has been so-so, but then, that’s to be expected as he takes his first few steps. He’s only participated in 10 rallies in his career to date, and only seven of those have been in a World Rally Car. His best result so far has been in the Rally of Turkey where he gave a solid performance to finish fifth overall.
His outright driving ability and speed is apparent and in the recent Rally Bulgaria he was running as high as fourth – that was until he crashed out in spectacular fashion.
So this year is one of learning for the 2007 F1 world champion. Yet there could well be a good chance for him to succeed next year when the WRC will experience a major shakeup, with the introduction of the new 1.6-turbo cars levelling the playing field.
Will he win as soon as next year? It’s difficult to say. Unless the usual frontrunners have an off-day, it’s unlikely. But, if Raikkonen does stay on for a third year then who knows? Surely Loeb can’t continue to muster up enthusiasm for a sport he wins merely by showing up?
Herr Schumacher’s F1 comeback has yet to deliver the results most people were hoping for this season.
His readjustment to F1 appears to be taking longer than his loyal fans envisaged, and while there are fits and starts here and there, the German racer still appears to be a bit rusty after three years out of the sport.
Going against pre-season predictions, team-mate Nico Rosberg continues to look good against Schuey. Visiting the podium on three occasions already this season and netting 90 of the 109 points the Mercedes GP team have mustered up to this point in time.
Realistically, the expectations placed upon Schumacher were gigantic. Yes he is a world champion, but he now races in possibly one of the most competitive eras ever seen in F1,pitching himself up against drivers who are twenty years younger than him. No doubt he is a top ten driver, but that’s still some way off reaching the top spot of the podium.
With a contract lasting until the end of 2012, Schumacher still has time on his hands to achieve his first win since making his return. Will it happen this year? Not on your Nelly. Even he suggests it would be “very, very lucky” for him to win a grand prix with Mercedes before 2011.
Confusion also reigns about the car’s true potential. Just how is it possible that Rosberg, a driver who used to be fractionally quicker than Kazuki Nakijima, is suddenly much quicker than Schumacher? You have to wonder what a more ‘experienced’ driver might be able to do with it.
And therein lies the problem. We don’t know what level Schumacher’s operating at, and so, Mercedes GP cannot be certain that the maximum is being extracted from the machinery.
Until that little conundrum becomes clearer, it doesn’t look like either Schumacher or Rosberg will be winning a grand prix anytime soon. At least, not this year.
So who then?
So this is the bit where I put my neck on the line and suggest who I think will secure their first win since changing their trade.
No doubt Schumacher faces the most difficult prospect of them both. Driving against racers half his age, who don’t know what it’s like to fear Grandpa Schuey, in a car that’s yet to reach its potential (much like the man himself) means he’ll most certainly always be on the back foot.
But who knows? Maybe the team will stumble upon a sweet spot in the car (eventually) and we’ll see what Schumacher can actually do. No excuses.
Therefore, out of the two, it has to be Raikkonen who looks most likely to win something. He’s in a decent enough car as it is at the moment and should hopefully benefit from the regulation shakeup and experience next year.
Who knows, perhaps Raikkonen might even win a grand prix before Schumacher kicks in the bucket again for a second time. Stranger things have happened…