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Second-chance saloon? How the returnees are faring 03 Jun 2010

Michael Schumacher (GER) Mercedes GP MGP W01.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 1, Bahrain Grand Prix, Practice Day, Bahrain International Circuit, Sakhir, Bahrain, Friday, 12 March 2010 Michael Schumacher (GER) Mercedes GP on the grid.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 3, Malaysian Grand Prix, Race, Sepang, Malaysia, Sunday, 4 April 2010 Vitantonio Liuzzi (ITA) Force India F1. 
Formula One World Championship, Rd 7, Turkish Grand Prix, Practice Day, Istanbul Park, Turkey, Friday, 28 May 2010 Vitantonio Liuzzi (ITA) Force India F1.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 3, Malaysian Grand Prix, Qualifying Day, Sepang, Malaysia, Saturday, 3 April 2010 Pedro De La Rosa (ESP) BMW Sauber.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 7, Turkish Grand Prix, Practice Day, Istanbul Park, Turkey, Friday, 28 May 2010

If the life of a rookie is tough, then the life of a Formula One returnee is surely just as taxing. Not only do they face the demands of returning to top-flight competition, they also have the weight of their past achievements to live up to. This season there are three drivers rejoining the fast lane full time after spells away. We take a look at how Schumacher, Liuzzi and De la Rosa are coping now that they’re back in the F1 fold…

Michael Schumacher, Mercedes GP
Best grid position: Fifth at the Turkish Grand Prix
Best race finish: Fourth at the Spanish and Turkish Grands Prix
Points: 34
Championship position: Ninth

If we’re talking about the weight of expectation, then none comes heavier than that resulting from Schumacher’s seven titles, 91 race wins and 68 pole positions. After a three and a half year sojourn as a Ferrari consultant, the lure of F1 proved too intoxicating for the German and at 41 he decided to return amid much fanfare with the new Mercedes GP team. It seemed like a German match made in heaven - the most-decorated driver and the rebranded 2009 champions, Brawn. Schumacher’s team mate Nico Rosberg was swiftly dismissed by the mass media, as his fans and foes alike contemplated an eighth world crown. The reality, however, has played out very differently. Perhaps their efforts towards the end of last year robbed Mercedes of the time needed to produce a worthy successor to the Brawn, or maybe they misjudged the strengths of their rivals. Whatever happened, the MGP-W01 has struggled for pace compared to the other frontrunners, and Schumacher seems to have shared the car’s shortcomings, while the younger Rosberg has been nothing short of a revelation, clinching two podiums and a front-row grid slot in Malaysia. Schumacher, on the other hand, seems to have been overwhelmed by a car that simply did not suit his driving style. Out-qualified, and then out-raced, by his younger counterpart on five out of seven occasions, Schumacher is trailing Rosberg by a mammoth 32 points. At May’s Spanish Grand Prix there was a heartening glimpse of the old Schumacher, as he fought tooth and nail in an upgraded Mercedes to clinch fourth (Rosberg finished 13th). But then in Monaco, the best the five-time Monte Carlo winner could muster was seventh on the grid, whilst his sixth-place finish was downgraded to 12th following a post-race penalty. In Turkey, however, the German bounced back and was strong enough in qualifying to take P5 (Rosberg was P6), whilst in the race itself he finished in fourth just ahead of fifth-placed Rosberg.

What next? Despite the troubles it seems nothing can wipe the smile off Schumacher’s face. He’s calm, collected, focused on improving and, most importantly, enjoying himself. Has he lost the killer instinct that made a machine out of the man? Possibly. Will he quit after this year, despite the three-year contract? Who knows? Do you believe that if everything (car, track and sheer good luck) comes together, Schumacher still won’t have what it takes anymore? Never.

Vitantonio Liuzzi, Force India
Best grid position: 10th at the Malaysian and Monaco Grands Prix
Best race finish: Seventh at the Australian Grand Prix
Points: 10
Championship position: 11th

Although Liuzzi raced in place of Giancarlo Fisichella at Force India for the last five rounds of 2009, this year marks the Italian’s first full season of F1 competition since his 2007 campaign with Toro Rosso. While he never truly excelled during his previous Formula One foray - his best finish was sixth at the 2007 Chinese Grand Prix - he was famed for his quick, smooth style and nobody was surprised when he was recalled to racing by Force India. After pre-season testing, Liuzzi described his new charge as “the best Formula One car I have ever driven”, but for now at least it seems he hasn’t managed to get the maximum from it. Of course, the VJM03 is far from a frontrunner, but it is has been good enough for Liuzzi’s team mate Adrian Sutil to score 22 points, and a fourth place grid slot (followed by a fifth-place race finish) in Malaysia. Liuzzi’s best performances have been his 10th-place grid slot in Monaco and seventh-place finish in Australia, which mean he trails Sutil by 12 points in the standings. Qualifying in China was a particular low point, when after failing to make it out of Q1, he was forced to watch his team mate sweep into the top-ten shoot-out. Of course he’s had two retirements to Sutil’s one DNF, but the fact he’s lost ground to his German counterpart is not just down to luck, and the 29 year-old was much relieved to enjoy a stronger showing in Monaco, even though he finished over three-tenths behind Sutil. But at Istanbul Park the best Liuzzi could muster was 18th on the grid and 13th in the race. Sutil on the other hand scored his third successive points-scoring finish in ninth.

What next? It’s clear a slow start to his season took the wind out of Liuzzi’s sails, knocking his confidence, but with some more points on the board, he’s hoping to increasingly match Sutil as the European season progresses. With team principal Vijay Mallya expecting him to do just that, he’ll need to deliver if he wants to stop third driver Paul di Resta demanding a shot at his race seat.

Pedro de la Rosa, BMW Sauber
Best grid position: 12th at the Malaysian and Spanish Grands Prix
Best race finish: 11th at the Turkish Grand Prix
Points: 0
Championship position: 18th

One of the biggest pre-season shocks was news that veteran tester De la Rosa had signed to race for BMW Sauber. Like Schumacher, his last race had been the 2006 Brazilian Grand Prix, where he’d been drafted in to replace Juan Pablo Montoya at McLaren. The Spaniard, who’d been McLaren’s test driver for six, comfortable years, admitted it would probably be his last shot at F1 competition, and hoped to score points in as many races as possible. His new team principal Peter Sauber was also hopeful, although he added the proviso that in order to use De la Rosa’s considerable experience to the full, they’d have to provide him with a ‘decent car’. That is something the team have struggled to deliver, even though optimistic fans crossed their fingers that all the right ingredients (including their position as a now defunct manufacturer team) were in place for BMW Sauber to become Brawn mark two. But the victories of the former Honda team haven’t materialised for the newly-independent Swiss squad. From hydraulic issues to collisions to engine problems, there have been retirements aplenty (four from seven races), whilst in Malaysia De la Rosa didn’t even start the race thanks to an engine problem on his C29. In fact he has crossed the finish line on just two occasions. The first was in Australia, but even there he experienced such tyre degradation that the best he could muster was 12th. The second was at last weekend’s Turkish Grand Prix. Although he finished in 11th, his team mate Kamui Kobayashi took 10th, thereby scoring BMW Sauber’s first point of the season. Qualifying too has been an uphill battle for De la Rosa. Although he’s consistently made it through Q1, he has always been stymied in Q2, with his highest grid placing 12th in Malaysia and Spain. And it certainly can’t have helped that Kobayashi (16 years De la Rosa’s junior) has made it through to Q3 on three occasions - in Malaysia, Spain and Turkey.

What next? Although De la Rosa admits he underestimated the time it would take to readjust to racing, he believes his performance is at a good level and overall the stats suggest he is only slightly behind (if not on a par with) his younger team mate. Now all he (or, indeed, they) need is for the car to come good. Without it, this really could be De la Rosa’s Formula One swansong.