Motorsport: Schu vows to raise his game after flat return
It was billed as the biggest sporting comeback of recent times, but Michael Schumacher struggled to shake off three years of retirement to compete with Formula One's young guns yesterday.
Schumacher, out of a competitive car since 2006, was the centre of attention in practice for the Bahrain Grand Prix, the first race of one of the most eagerly awaited seasons in history.
But the pressure of getting straight back up to the speed that carried him to a record seven world championships -- and at the age of 41 -- was beyond the German during a day marked with flashes of frustration.
The winner of 91 Grands Prix was forced to admit that he was "rusty" as he grappled with the complexities of his new Mercedes car at the Sakhir circuit.
Schumacher clambered into third place on the time sheets, but behind Nico Rosberg, his young team-mate, who was fastest, and Lewis Hamilton, who finished second in his McLaren. Jenson Button, Hamilton's team-mate in the so-called 'dream team', was fourth.
"I certainly feel a little bit rusty; certainly on the one-lap issue, I can do better," said the German. "On long runs and consistent runs things are pretty good, I'm quite happy. I will just use the rest of the weekend in order to tweak out the little bits.
"It's not a problem. It's just that for one lap I saw that Nico was four-10ths up and that is a bit too much for my standards. I've got to raise my game a bit and I'm sure I'm able to."
Despite the anticlimax, this battle is nowhere near over. Qualifying today is likely to be electrifying as teams continue to tweak and develop their cars right up to the last minute.
The huge suitcases and cardboard boxes that arrived at Bahrain airport with team members over the past two days were ample evidence that the pace of change in Formula One is extraordinary.
Hamilton's candid assessment was that four hours of practice had not revealed who is going to come out on top in the race tomorrow as teams tested how far they could push the new, narrower tyres demanded in the regulations this year and how their cars, filled to the brim with 50 gallons of fuel, would react on a hot, dusty circuit.
"I still don't have an understanding of where everybody is; I have honestly absolutely no idea," the Briton said. "We might be seriously slow or seriously quick; we won't know until we go into qualifying. But degradation of the tyres is very high and if you don't push at the beginning, it is difficult to know whether you will be able to push harder at the end."
Banning refuelling for the first time since the 1993 season will mean a massive change to race strategies and demand intelligence and race craft from the drivers.
Racing last season was almost reduced to a series of sprints between fuel stops; this season, though, drivers will be expected to set off on full tanks and make their fuel last nearly 200 miles to the end of the Grand Prix.
That could turn the first corner tomorrow into Formula One's equivalent of a truck derby as drivers struggle to slow their cars, which will be carrying the equivalent of 160kg in weight in fuel.
"The car is a bit of a dog to drive on a heavy fuel load," Hamilton said. "It is a bit like driving a bus -- it doesn't want to stop under braking."
At least Hamilton and the leading cars were being held back only by rugby players. Drivers for the three new teams on the grid -- Virgin Racing, Lotus and Spain's HRT F1 -- must have thought they were being dragged back by anchors as they ran hopelessly off the pace.
At least Virgin and Lotus fielded two cars, but HRT got only Bruno Senna out on to the track.
The nephew of Ayrton Senna, the legendary three-time world champion, set a time not quite in the family tradition, trailing 11.5 seconds behind Rosberg -- the equivalent of strolling alongside Usain Bolt sprinting to the line.
HRT, who made their plane to Bahrain with only 30 minutes to spare, still had not finished building a car for Karun Chandhok, who was forced to sit and watch from a chaotic garage yesterday. It means that the rookie Indian has still not turned a wheel of a Formula One car with the clock ticking down to the first qualifying session of his racing life.
The odds would seem to be that he will not make it on to the track this weekend, the culmination of a shambolic entry into what is supposed to be the zenith of motorsport. (© The Times, London)
Bahrain Grand Prix
Live, tomorrow, BBC1/Setanta Ire, 12.0