MAY 11, 2011
The Mercedes GP hospitality area in Turkey laid on cake and a rendition of Stevie Wonder's 'Happy Birthday' to greet the arrival on Saturday of Dr. Dieter Zetsche, the Chairman of Daimler AG. The low-key celebration was not exactly a dollar short but it was at least a day late, Dr. Zetsche's birthday having been on the previous Thursday.
But never mind my lame use of such a cliche. The celebration was more appropriate than you might think because Dr. Zetsche had actually been born not far away in Istanbul 58 years before. The German's family was temporarily in Turkey at the time because Zetsche Senior, a civil engineer, was in charge of a dam project. You could also say that's a useful (if equally pathetic) analogy because Dr. Zetsche must be aware that his F1 team is holding back a mounting tide of critical comment over Michael Schumacher's progress around the race track.
We may never know how much persuasion was needed to have Zetsche and his board agree to pay for Schumacher's return at the beginning of last year. You could see the positives: seven-time world champion superstar comes back to complete the German jigsaw for the rebirth of the Mercedes Silver Arrows.
The negatives, if there were to be any, would only emerge once he began what he was being paid handsomely to do. Now, in the light of another disappointing performance in Turkey, even Schuey's strongest supporter in the Stuttgart boardroom must be wondering quietly if this has been wise.
Michael's supporters offer a raft of statistics to support the view that he is one of the greatest - if not the greatest - F1 drivers of all time. In which case, here is a fact that must be extremely uncomfortable to digest: Schumacher has now gone for 25 races without visiting the podium. His previous worst run was seven - and that was at the start of his career, way back in 1991/92. Then he reached the rostrum in five of the next six races. The rest, as they say, is history.
For a man who thrives on winning, on being the best, this absence from the limelight must be increasingly difficult to mind-manage, even allowing for the caveat that F1 today is extremely competitive and these things take time.
But just how much time do Mercedes GP have? Not a great deal when it comes to needing the man in the red helmet to at least match, if not beat, Nico Rosberg in a car that is beginning to come good. It's true that Michael's lap times suggest he might have finished sixth had he not needed a new nose after tagging Vitaly Petrov on the second lap. But it is the fact that he had such a crass collision in the first place that causes the most concern.
This came on the back of a more alarming incident during free practice on Friday when Schumacher had to take sudden avoiding action after failing to see a Force India coming alongside. It was reminiscent of an elderly driver doddering along in the middle lane and being scared witless by passing truck (no offence intended, Force India!)
No one likes to see great champions humbled. That's why credence was gladly given to the view last year that his comeback had been affected by a car and tyres that did not suit his oversteer style of driving.
That theory no longer holds water. The 2011 Pirellis, stronger at the front than the rear, act in the opposite manner to last year's Bridgestones and, in any case, all 24 drivers started on the same level playing field when coming to terms with the new rubber.
Certainly, Schumacher has a better handle on this year's Mercedes but, when it comes down to the one-lap pace needed in qualifying, the out-and-out speed we loved to see is no longer there. And, worse still, Michael appears to be at a loss to explain why.
Some say his legacy will remain intact, no matter what. I'm not so sure. When Schumacher becomes involved in questionable behaviour - particularly the Barrichello incident in Hungary last year - newspapers and magazines immediately recall Adelaide 1994 and Jerez 1997, two occasions when his behaviour was less than exemplary. It is surely very sad that the younger generation will begin to think of him only in these terms.
Either way, it has to be a fair bet that when Dr. Zetsche celebrates his 59th birthday, Michael Schumacher will be able to drink the champagne without needing to worry about driving an F1 car.
Maurice Hamilton , a freelance motor sport writer and broadcaster since 1977, is the author of more than twenty books and contributes to websites and magazines worldwide.
His weekly column for Grandprix.com was Highly Commended in the 2011 Newspress New Media Awards.