Lauda: Schumacher will be back on form by Malaysia 19 Mar 2010
Returning from horrifying injuries in 1976 to take the second of his three drivers titles the following year, Niki Lauda is the ultimate comeback kid. Who better then to assess Michael Schumachers Grand Prix return at last weekends season opener in Bahrain? Race winner Fernando Alonso, ill-fated pole sitter Sebastian Vettel and the three new teams also come under the scrutiny of the outspoken Austrian in our exclusive interview
Q: Niki, with everyone running low fuel this season qualifying should really show who is quickest. Were you surprised that it was Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull who were the pacemakers in Bahrain?
Niki Lauda: No, because to be surprised I would have had to have known who was the fastest. Everybody who thought they would be able to make a prediction after testing is an idiot. Nobody tested under similar conditions, so whoever made a statement before Saturday afternoon was at best a phony.
Q: Would you have guessed that McLaren and Mercedes would be off the pace on Saturday?
NL: Its the same answer as before - how should I know? But what we have seen - Vettel on pole position and the Ferraris snapping at his heels, followed by Lewis (Hamilton) and Nico (Rosberg) - is something that we will very likely see a lot this year.
Q: How would you rate Michael Schumachers return?
NL: It was a perfect performance. You can hardly start any better. He ran very little over the winter, due to test restrictions, and got into a modified car he had never driven before, so it was simply impossible for him to clock a qualification lap at the push of a button. Id suppose he needs about three races to get back up to the same level he was at. When you take all that into account, he did a superb qualification lap, even compared to Nico who was only three-tenths faster. My guess is that in Kuala Lumpur he will have regained that ability to switch on for a fast lap that every permanent driver has to have.
Q: What are your thoughts on the outcome of the Bahrain race?
NL: Ferrari delivered a perfect race. Their win was well deserved and they finished the race. You know that saying, to finish first you first have to finish. Lewis, Vettel and both Mercedes were very close, so it definitely looks like we are going to see a very tight championship. The question now will be about who can develop at the fastest rate.
Q: Jenson Button was a bit off the pace compared to his team mate Hamilton. Were you surprised?
NL: No, that was what I expected. Lewis knows the team, so it is not surprising that he can control Jenson.
Q: What is your advice for Sebastian Vettel? He wasnt happy with fourth
NL: He should keep at the level he was at in Bahrain. He is the fastest car/driver combination at the moment, and even if he didnt win he can head to Australia quite satisfied. Up until his car troubles he had dominated the race very clearly. Nobody behind him had the slightest chance of catching up.
Q: Fernando Alonso was always one of the favourites for the title, but his odds must be even better now after he won in Bahrain
NL: He won the race because Sebastian had problems with his car. So lets wait until Australia to see if he was just sailing due to somebody elses bad luck, or if he can do it by himself.
Q: Was a pecking order established in Bahrain?
NL: Yes, for the moment it is Red Bull as the leader of the pack, followed by Ferrari, then McLaren and Mercedes are almost even.
Q: What did you think about the performances of the new teams?
NL: The only benefit of the new teams is that the grid looks more impressive on TV and you have the benefit of beating more cars when you win. I am not the right person to ask as I hardly look at them - I am only interested in the top teams. The gap suggests that somebody should pull them up and get them to develop faster.