Has Schumacher actually gotten worse this F1 season?

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Two competing views of Michael Schumacher are making the rounds on the Interweb today.

In one corner, Ross Brawn is adamant that Schumacher hasn’t lost it. In the other is BBC pundit Mark Hughes, who says the Schumacher of old has been replaced by an old Schumacher.

Which one of them is right?

Both do agreed on one point: This year’s tires are not friendly to Schumacher’s driving style. They do differ on just how much that is affecting him. Here’s Ross:

Michael’s driving style depends on a strong front tyre that can withstand his hard braking and the steering manoeuvres that he prefers. Nico has simply understood better how to handle these front tyres. I have to say that this year’s front tyre is very uncommon. That stems from the fact that the FIA wanted to promote KERS and had asked Bridgestone to develop tyres that would fit a certain weight distribution and thus create a specific tyre characteristic.

[snip]

Next year we expect the Pirelli tyres will work better for Michael’s driving style and only then will we know if Nico really is quicker than Michael.

[snip]

If you take the telemetry data in fast corners or his reaction time when the car breaks away, I don’t see any difference. There he’s still the old Michael. But in the slow corners he cannot make full use of the tyres as Nico can. Nico has put the bar very high in this respect. But I guess that’s okay for Michael as he clearly sees where he has to improve. I predict that in 2011 we will again see the true Michael – when we’ve delivered him a better car.

Here’s Hughes:

It is now accepted as normal that he qualifies a few tenths of a second behind team-mate Nico Rosberg, as he did here. But a scrappy, slow, incident and error-filled race underlined the fact that Schumacher has got worse, not better, as his first season back from retirement has progressed.

[snip]

Having stood trackside at some stage of every grand prix weekend for the last decade and a bit, witnessed Schumacher at his peak and in his comeback, the visual evidence of the dimming of his skills is obvious.

In his Ferrari years, to see his first lap out of the pits through a corner such as Spa’s Pouhon was to witness awe-inspiring genius that left you barely comprehending how what you had just seen could be possible.

He would commit totally to the blind exit, flat-in-top downhill entry corner, a down-change just after turning in and the car would be shuddering on the edge of adhesion, visibly faster than anything else – and Schumacher would make not a single further input because to do so would have sent the car off.

He would sit on this delicate knife-edge until the car was fully loaded up and pointed directly at the apex and then simply power his way out.

To be able to sit immediately on this incredibly narrow balancing point was a skill beyond the reach of his rivals. It is now beyond him, too.

[snip]

Schumacher says it is to do with how the gripless control Bridgestone tyres do not allow him the front-end grip to be able to drive in his natural way. There is a logic to this.

With a grippy front end, he would previously get the car pointed early at the apex using his delicate feel to transfer the weight under braking and cornering, pivoting the car around so it changed direction early, with the minimum of steering lock.

The less steering lock, the less speed-sapping front-tyre scrub, the earlier you can get the car pointed at the apex, the earlier you can get on the power. These tyres do not allow you to drive in that way.

But in the past Schumacher has adapted brilliantly to understeering cars. He used to adapt his style corner by corner, lap by lap, to whatever was appropriate.

Hughes’ take is pretty harsh, but seemingly pretty well reasoned. He neatly answers the tire question, but I suppose it could be taking Schumacher more time to get that most superb quality back than we might have imagined it would. Or, at age 40-plus, there’s just no way to get that extra something he once had back.

It seems reasonable. He’s not 25 anymore.

I’m interested, though, if others think Michael has actually gotten worse this year. That strikes me as the most damning charge and as one that would play into any rumor about his choosing not to come back.

What’s your assessment of Schumacher’s season? And do you think a more suitable tire would make the difference between winning and… what he’s been doing?

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