When Michael Schumacher decided to make a comeback he probably wasn't figuring on hearing radio messages like: "If you can get past Alguersuari you may get a point." He was probably also figuring that after he'd passed Timo Glock in Melbourne, the Virgin would stay passed, not come barrelling down his inside to re-pass as if Glock had never even heard of Michael Schumacher.
That wasn't a representative picture of Michael's progress, but it's fair to say that things could be going better. He might have qualified just behind team-mate Nico Rosberg in Australia but the underlying form showed him to be further away than in Bahrain. Taking their best sector times in qualifying, Rosberg was over 0.4s quicker. In Bahrain he had been just 0.3s quicker over a much longer lap. The first corner incident at Albert Park that left Michael running near the back in a damaged car simply added to the discomfort he is clearly showing at the moment.
Michael Schumacher © LAT
Jackie Stewart was an interested observer at both races and isn't too surprised at what he's seeing: "I think it's about par for the course," he says, "about what I'd have expected - but I'm sure it's a lot less than he expected.
"It's only his second race back and we have to give him a chance, but it's no simple thing to come back at this level - it's a particularly good group of drivers around right now. I don't remember a better group being around since I was racing. If he'd only had to go quicker than maybe two top guys, it would be one thing, but six or seven of them?"
In 1978 and again in '83 Stewart did a series of track tests with then-current F1 cars. This was five and 10 years respectively after he'd retired as a 34-year-old and on both occasions he was fully competitive with the then-current drivers. "It was a lot of fun," he recalls, "just like riding a bike. I was able to enjoy it for 20 laps and not worry about having to race week-in, week-out."
But in 1989, as a 50-year-old testing Riccardo Patrese's Williams-Renault at Paul Ricard, he got his first insight into the limitations the mind can begin to place on a driver's speed. "It wasn't that I couldn't do it," he says, "but when it came to taking Signes flat there was a question in my mind about whether it was the right thing to be doing, so I was backing off there. Yet in the slow and medium speed corners I was as quick as Riccardo.
"I'm thinking, 'why do I want to do this?' I don't think at 41 that's an issue for Michael, but at some level he will be having to decide how far to push it to be able to go faster than Vettel or Alonso - or indeed his own team-mate, Nico Rosberg. If you look at Bahrain and its big run-off areas, compared with Albert Park where you can hit solid things if you make a mistake, there's a very different level of challenge."
It's one thing deciding to come back when you're convinced things will be much as they always used to be, loving the sensations of being in the thick of the victory fight. But it's surely quite another to stay when you're just one of the pack.
"I'm hearing stories that he's beginning to complain that Nico is getting better service," says Stewart, "and if true, that would be the first symptom that's he's struggling. The problem is, if he's feeling that, he might begin to use his muscle - which I think would be a mistake and something that even Ross Brawn or Norbert Haug might find difficult to deal with.
"If you were to talk to a business analyst of the sport, he'd say the most important thing would be for Schumacher to win a race, or be in contention for the championship - for the benefit of F1. Make no mistake, Michael is fully capable of getting it together, but if he doesn't, things may get messy."
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