One of Germany's favorite sporting sons, Formula One driver Michael Schumacher, has announced his comeback. He will be replacing the Ferrari team's Felipe Massa, who suffered serious head injuries last weekend in a freak accident during qualification races for the Hungarian Grand Prix.
He's back: Seven-time Formula One champion Michael Schumacher will return to the race track this August.
This week, Massa's accident was overshadowed by Schumacher's announcement, in a statement published on his Web site, that he would be filling in for Massa in the Ferrari cockpit. With seven world championships and 91 victories (out of 249 starts) to his name, Schumacher is arguably the most successful F1 driver in the history of the sport. Schumi -- as he is fondly known in Germany -- is also one of the wealthiest drivers, having earned an estimated $650 million in wages and endorsements over the course of his 15-year career.
'I Cannot Ignore This Unhappy Situation'
That career ended almost three years ago, on October 22, 2006, when Schumacher retired after a race in Sao Paolo, Brazil. Since then, the adrenaline junkie has been getting his kicks from a variety of extreme sports, such as skydiving and racing motorcycles and go-carts (his parents have owned a cart-racing track for years).
During a press conference on Wednesday, Schumacher elaborated on his reasons. "Firstly, the most important thing: Thank god the news about Felipe is overwhelmingly positive," he said. "Once again, I would just like to wish him all the best." He continued: "This afternoon, I met with Stefano Domenicali (the leader of Ferrari's F1 team) and Luca di Montezemolo (the chairman of both Ferrari and Fiat), and together we decided that I would prepare myself to take Felipe's place. Even though Formula 1 has been over for me for some time now, due to my connections to the (Ferrari) team, I cannot ignore this unhappy situation. Now that I am a competitor once again, I am looking forward to the challenge."
Earlier in the week, there had already been rumors following statements by Schumacher's spokesperson, Sabine Kehm, that her boss had travelled to Maranello, Italy, where Ferrari is based. Before making this announcement, the German driver had asked Massa if he could use his car until the younger Brazilian got better, according to the DPA German news agency. Massa reportly answered Schumacher: "No problem."
"Ferrari asked him to do this and he couldn't say no," Schumacher's manager, Willi Weber, told the Tagesspiegel newspaper. "They talked about it for a long time on Monday, and the final decision was in his (Schumacher's) hands -- just as it was when he decided to retire," Weber noted.
A Comeback Good for the Sport
Schumacher's first race for Ferrari will come in late August at the European Grand Prix in Valencia, Spain. The news has been greeted with enthusiasm and excitement, and nowhere more so than in Schumi's homeland. Commentators have also described it as a shot in the arm for a troubled F1, which has seen more than its share of political turmoil and freak accidents this season.
F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone must be happy, writes the Financial Times Deutschland. "He couldn't dream off anything better than the comeback of one of the best drivers of all time," the paper said. "Schumacher's appearance will send television ratings through the roof, and there will be thousands of German F1 pilgrims coming to Spain for this."
"This is the biggest, most wonderful surprise that Formula One could hope for," Norbert Haug, president in charge of Mercedes Benz motor sports, told the DPA. Die Welt newspaper called it "an important day for German F1 fans, a day of hope."
Too Old? Too Injured?
Of course, plenty of questions remain, and even the Germans haven't been shy about asking a few searching questions about Schumacher's age, ability and fitness.
For one thing, Schumacher has not driven a Ferrari since early 2008, and he hasn't raced one since 2006. And his timing is somewhat bad. This is the first season in which teams have not been allowed to test cars on tracks between seasons. As a result, assuming he passes his fitness checks, the first time he will be able to take the wheel of his racing car on a track will be in Spain on August 21st. Two days later, he will already be racing in the European Grand Prix.
In those two days, Schumacher will have to get used to his car's updated technical specifications. Things change fast in F1. Since 2006, tires have changed, electronics and aerodynamics have been altered, and some of the F1 rules have also been amended.
And then there's the matter of age. "Schumacher will be 40 years, seven months and three days old," on the starting line at Valencia, German television station RTL noted. Even though Ferrari's other drivers -- Luca Badoer, 35, and Marc Gene, 38 -- are not exactly spring chickens, "there is no one else that old currently competing in Formula One," the mass-circulation tabloid Bild added.
Still, Schumacher himself doesn't seem to have any doubts. In an interview this month with the German gossip weekly Bunte, Schumacher said: "The way I am at the moment -- both mentally and physically -- I am certain I can still be a serious contender."
And, then, last but not least, there's Schumacher's neck injury. After a crash in February during a motorbike race in Spain, the F1 champion broke two vertebrae in his neck. Since the accident, he has not been able to move his head completely freely. Physical therapists will be working to make sure this isn't a problem. But it is surely something he will have to be able to do when he is driving up to 300 km/h (186 mph) and subject to enormous G-forces.