MAY 3, 2010

Will chassis upgrade solve Schumacher woes?

With Michael Schumacher's difficult race in Shanghai making the seven time champion's form the major talking point after how to get home from China, Mercedes will be hoping that a longer wheelbase chassis due for introduction at Barcelona this week will prove better suited to Schumacher's driving style.

Opinion within the motor racing world seems polarised, even among some of the most eminent commentators. Sir Jackie Stewart has said that Schumacher, at 41, may need to have conversations with himself about just how hard he is prepared to push, but thinks it unreasonable for F1 to expect any more than we have seen from Schumacher, so soon.

Compatriot David Coulthard also thinks that Schumacher needs to be given half a season before any judgements are made. Sir Stirling Moss, on the other hand, thinks that Michael could be 'past it.' Moss questions the reasons behind his comeback and also figures that Nico Rosberg might just be the first truly competitive team mate that Schumacher has encountered.

There are plenty prepared to take issue with that, pointing out that Nelson Piquet, Martin Brundle, Eddie Irvine, Rubens Barrichello and Felipe Massa were hardly slouches and that if anyone at Ferrari had been quicker than Michael, it is they who would have received No1 treatment. However, there is no denying that much of the paddock expected more from Michael's comeback, reasonable or not.

Apart from his time out of the cockpit there are other factors blunting Schumacher's effectiveness as compared to before. He always had cars specially developed to fit with his desire for a very sharp turn-in, with tyre development key to that. But, today, there is no in-season testing and perhaps even more critical, no bespoke tyres, only Bridgetone's control rubber. Added to that, the dimensions of this year's front tyres are smaller, making the front end grip relatively weaker. It all adds up to the understeer characteristic which Schumacher is finding difficult.

Some top drivers, Alain Prost and latterly Jenson Button among them, are perfectly happy with a car with an inherent understeer trait, but others find they cannot access the higher levels of performance which comes naturally with a positive front end.

Mercedes is trying to address the issue through increasing front aerodynamic downforce by lengthening the wheelbase not, they say, for Michael's benefit, but to the overall advantage of both drivers.

Questioned about it in Shanghai, Ross Brawn said: "The problem is not the wheelbase per se, it's the weight distribution. We got that wrong. When we started trying these tyres we realised we didn't have the weight distribution we needed and we immediately went to the limit of what we could achieve with this car. The tyre dimensions changed, with smaller fronts and different rears. We had no opportunity to try them and we didn't make as good a guess on what we needed as some of the other teams. So we've got a modification for Barcelona which should put us into a better range for what we want to achieve."

Schumacher himself has said, "I'm slower than before because of the tyres. It's not possible to push as hard as before." Before, it was Schumacher who did most of Bridgestone's tyre development, being chiefly responsible for the specification of the 2006 tyre, the last year in which he drove before retiring. It was perfectly logical that, amid a tyre war, Bridgestone developed its rubber around Schumacher and Ferrari while Michelin optimised theirs for Fernando Alonso and Renault. Alonso won the battle that year just but if Schumacher didn't like one of Bridgestone's offerings he simply asked them to make another tyre. He can't do that today.

Michael will be fervently hoping that increased front aero effect from the new specification Mercedes will go a good way towards making the car better suited to his style. If not, he faces a long year.