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Schumacher - can past glories still be rekindled? 10 Jun 2011

Michael Schumacher (GER) Mercedes GP.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 7, Canadian Grand Prix, Preparations, Montreal, Canada, Thursday, 9 June 2011 Michael Schumacher (GER) Ferrari celebrates on the podium.
Formula One World Championship, Rd8, Race Day, Canadian Grand Prix, Montreal, Canada, 13 June 2004 Michael Schumacher (GER) Mercedes GP MGP W02.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 6,  Monaco Grand Prix, Race, Monte-Carlo, Monaco, Sunday, 29 May 2011 (L to R): Sebastian Vettel (GER) Red Bull Racing with Michael Schumacher (GER) Mercedes GP on the drivers parade.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 6,  Monaco Grand Prix, Race Day, Monte-Carlo, Monaco, Sunday, 29 May 2011 Michael Schumacher (GER) Mercedes GP MGP W02 and Vitaly Petrov (RUS) Lotus Renault GP R31 battle for position.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 4, Turkish Grand Prix, Race, Istanbul Park, Turkey, Sunday, 8 May 2011 Michael Schumacher (GER) Mercedes GP MGP W02.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 5, Spanish Grand Prix, Practice Day, Barcelona, Spain, Friday, 20 May 2011 Karun Chandhok (IND) Hispania Racing F1 Team (HRT) HRTF1 passed by Michael Schumacher (GER) Mercedes GP MGP W01.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 8, Canadian Grand Prix, Race, Montreal, Canada, Sunday, 13 June 2010 Michael Schumacher (GER) Mercedes GP MGP W02.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 4, Turkish Grand Prix, Practice Day, Istanbul Park, Turkey, Friday, 6 May 2011 Michael Schumacher (GER) Mercedes GP MGP W02.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 2, Malaysian Grand Prix, Practice Day, Sepang, Malaysia, Friday, 8 April 2011

Throughout the first incarnation of his F1 career, Michael Schumacher smashed records with startling regularity. A season didn’t seem to pass without Schumacher outstripping his predecessors and setting a new, higher, better, bigger benchmark to be beaten.

Now knee deep in a less successful return to the sport he once dominated, the only record the German has come close to in 2011 is the broken one spinning fruitlessly round the turntable, as pundits endlessly debate just how close he is to throwing in the towel.

This weekend Schumacher returns to Canada - the scene of seven of his 91 Formula One victories and one of his favourite tracks on the calendar - no doubt hoping he will be able to kick start his career fight back at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, and silence the critics who have been so eager to suggest his glory days are long gone.

If this is all starting to sound a little familiar then it’s because Schumacher headed to Montreal under just the same pressure last year. A few months earlier he had returned to the paddock after a three-year absence, fit, determined and ready to take down all the young bucks that had emerged since his retirement back in 2006.

Most had thought wins for his Mercedes team (the newly-rebranded world champions Brawn) were a certainty and many forecast a historic eighth drivers’ title for Schumacher. The weight of expectation was immense, but the reality of his comeback proved harder than Schumacher, Mercedes and almost everyone else had thought possible.

Yes, the car had issues, but the 41 year-old also looked distinctly uncomfortable compared to his young team mate Nico Rosberg. And, while there were occasional highlights and some improvements as the year progressed, Schumacher never seemed fully in the groove and at the season’s close had earned barely half Rosberg’s points tally (72 to 142). The dream had soured - would he call it quits?

But instead of slowly backing his way out of the door and ripping up his three-year contract with the team, Schumacher stood his ground, looked his critics in the eye and knuckled down for a second season. And although nothing approaching a turnaround has been forthcoming yet, even his greatest detractors have got to admire his chutzpah for trying.

Still it can’t be ignored that the opening six races of 2011 have produced pretty slim pickings for Schumacher. He has gleaned just 14 points with his best finish - sixth - recorded at the recent Spanish round. This time last season he’d scored 22 points with a best finish - again in Barcelona - of fourth.

Rewind further back to his record-breaking 2004 season and Schumacher had already taken five wins over the opening six races. Times have certainly changed, and after a particularly disappointing Turkish event, in which he clashed/collided with four fellow drivers, it appeared that even Schumacher’s veneer of hopeful patience had finally cracked in an ill-tempered post-race interview.

However, he bounced back from his Istanbul melancholy and was on fighting form in Spain and then Monaco, where he took fifth on the grid. And though his Monte Carlo race ultimately ended in retirement thanks to an airbox fire, he had been running quite strongly.

But Schumacher’s real problem is that while he has struggled with the MGP-W02, his team mate Rosberg has performed well enough in the car to prove his dominance of his fellow German last season was no fluke. Not only has the younger team mate continually outpaced the elder statesman - Rosberg has reached Q3 at all six 2011 races, Schumacher at just three - he’s also managed to notch up 26 points (12 more than his illustrious counterpart), including a fourth-place finish in China.

And so to Canada. As discussed, the race is one of many where no driver has scored more race wins than Schumacher. In total he has claimed seven (1994, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2002, 2003 and 2004) victories in Montreal, but his record - glorious though it is - was set in very different times.

And if proof were needed that this really is a new era for Schumacher then his showing in Montreal last year would be it. In one of the most demoralising outings of his 2010 campaign, he had been running as high as third in the early stages, but an off-track excursion in a fight with Renault’s Robert Kubica, plus further incidents with Ferrari’s Felipe Massa, then Force India’s Vitantonio Liuzzi, who deprived him of ninth place on the final lap, and finally Adrian Sutil, who squeezed ahead in the second Force India before the final corner, left him 11th and out of the points.

Amid continuing criticism in recent races of his rusty-looking racecraft, Schumacher could be in for more of the same at this year’s event. It’s worth remembering, however, that his car has been improving of late and he has declared himself ‘ready to fight’ in Montreal this weekend. In fact Schumacher looks just as determined as he ever did in the first leg of his career.

Yes, it’s been tough. Yes, he seems to have struggled to match the grid’s younger generation. And yes, the new Pirelli tyres seem to have placed him on a very steep learning curve, without the test-heavy safety blanket of his former glory days. But he’s still a fighter and is resolutely focused on rejuvenating Mercedes’ past glories, just as he was with Ferrari when he joined them 15 years ago. There might just be life in the old dog yet…

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