So it's happening: Michael Schumacher is on the comeback trail, training like hell each day, getting himself ready, racing's drug still in his system. And still the clock ticks.
There's a song by Ry Cooder, 'Flathead One More Time', where the character of the piece, an ageing ex-desert-speed-trials racer, is being lured back into the cockpit. 'Three o'clock this morning, I woke up in a dream, thought I heard a flathead motor roar, thought I smelled gasoline. A feeling came upon me that I ain't had in years, something like a hot, dry wind whistling past my ears, saying time, time, time is all you got. There's a memory that's still burning way down in my mind. That's why I'm going out and trying a flathead. One. More. Time.' It could just as easily be about Michael and F1.
He was devastated when he was unable to stand in for Felipe Massa this year, saying to friends that briefly his life had meaning again.
If his neck injury is sorted, he can do this. He can come back and still be the Michael Schumacher he used to be, still able to commit a car to a knife-edge limit going into a corner, sitting it out, making not a single further input lest it fall off that edge. He can keep pounding out laps like these until what was an impossible horizon is a target in his immediate sights; he can adapt his driving style around whatever is required, can change it by the lap. He can still leave a telemetry trace that will have his engineer and team-mate confused, can still weave his magic until time itself surrenders lamb-like to his fabulous powers.
Just his presence in a team will have it buzzing to his pitch. He brings a power to a team beyond just that of being a staggeringly good racing driver. Rival teams would be competing not just against a fast driver in a good car but against 'Michael Schumacher' and the intimidation of his legend.
Has he still got what it takes?
He's three seasons out of racing, but that's no debarring thing. The limited pre-season testing opportunity might mean he'd start a little rustier than he may have done otherwise, but you'd fancy that to be barely visible even from the inside. At this age drivers don't slow through a diminution of skill, but of desire. You need to want it very badly to have yourself at the pitch where every split-second of lap time matters so intensely at every braking zone and every corner entry; you need to be mentally hugely committed to maintain that level for a sustained period.
There are drivers - highly-rated ones - in F1 who lack that final bit of desire, but if Michael is to be the Michael of old he cannot. As such, you would question why he stopped in the first place. For one, it was a retirement that he was rather pressured into and tied up with the internal politics of Ferrari, of the power struggle between Luca di Montezemolo and Jean Todt. For another, he probably just needed a break, not an end, from F1's intensity after 15 years of it.
There's a fallacy built up in the years Schumacher's been away that Massa was already getting the upper hand on him in his final season. It's nonsense. It's based on no more than the fact that Felipe won in Turkey and Brazil in the second half of the season. But in both of those races there were specific reasons why Schumacher couldn't fight him.
In Turkey an inopportunely-timed safety car meant he had to be queued in the pitlane, meaning Alonso's Renault was subsequently between the Ferraris, thereby forming a protective buffer for Massa. The only reason he was behind Massa in the first place was the much heavier fuel load he'd taken into Q3 and, when allowance was taken of that, he was comfortably faster than his junior team-mate.
In Brazil he could take no part in Q3 because of a fuel-pump failure, leaving Massa to take an uncontested pole, the foundation of his victory. Looking at Q2, where straightforward comparison was possible in each of those races, in Turkey Schumacher was a whopping 1.2s faster than Massa, in Brazil he was 0.462s ahead. In the 54 qualifying sessions of the 2006 season, Massa was genuinely quicker than Schumacher only once - in Q2 at Monza, by 0.128s.
Michael's average advantage over Massa in those 54 sessions was in excess of half a second. That's a staggering degree of superiority over a driver we now know is very fast indeed, stats that Kimi Raikkonen would kill for, stats that will almost certainly not be matched next year by Fernando Alonso. There is no evidence whatsoever that Michael's pace was falling off in his final season.
Now we know it's all going to happen, that he's committed to coming back, that he has joined Mercedes, if Ross Brawn and the team have come up with another title-contending car and Michael is able to continue at the level he left off in 2006. Now let's add another 'if' - that the 2010 McLaren is comparably good, leaving us with: Lewis Hamilton vs Michael Schumacher. There are going to be all sorts of other intriguing battles going on next year - Hamilton/Button, Alonso/Massa for example - but this is potentially the most fascinating of all.
How will the swashbuckling, inspirational young charger that doesn't recognise anything in a racing car as impossible fare against the old miracle worker?
Which is the irresistible force, which the immovable object? Bring a fully competitive Ferrari and Alonso into the mix, not to mention Massa, Button and Vettel, and you are into the realms of fantasy come real.
Ultimately Michael Schumacher is someone who since childhood has defined himself as a racing driver. Since stopping three years ago he has given no obvious indication of being someone at ease with being an ex-racing driver, of knowing what it is he wants to do with the rest of his life. That's a very heavy thing to have hanging over you.
What better escape from it than returning to the intensity of the cockpit, where the all-consuming demands leave no room for those bigger, more fundamental, questions? Just the unfurling race track in front of you, the reassuring scream of an engine behind, the comforting tone of Ross Brawn in your earpiece asking for a miracle. One. More. Time.
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