James Lawton: Schumacher to kick up a storm in desert
It may be true that nowhere is the world less inclined to stand still than in Formula One but then if anyone can put a brake on the assumption that both genius and unprecedented achievement can be timed out in a mere four years surely it is Michael Schumacher.
Still, the worry among even his greatest admirers is that in Bahrain this weekend something more than a reputation for glacial-cool calculation, on and off the track, will be subjected to the buffeting of a desert wind.
What some fear, and others who are less benevolently inclined towards arguably the most ruthless man who ever lowered himself into a racing cockpit may anticipate with rather more relish, is that in the course of the new season it is not only the image of Schumacher the champion that will unravel, but also the sense of a man utterly at peace with his vision of himself.
Indeed, there is a historical parallel in a sport quite different to racing in all but its central requirement of testing the nerve and residual talent of its greatest practitioners. It happened in another desert, the one of Nevada, 30 years ago, when Muhammad Ali persuaded himself that he could reconjure all the best of himself against a younger, stronger challenger, Larry Holmes.
Some strong men cried at the fate of Ali under the clubbing blows of Holmes. In Bahrain the tears, we can be sure, will be rather less copious if younger lions like Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button begin the vital business of tearing down Schumacher and his latest alliance with the tough and cerebral Ross Brawn —- and the spending power of Mercedes.
Schumacher, inevitably, smiles icily at what he suggests is the remoteness of such a prospect, but he of all people must know that the hungry pride he has rejoined at the age of 41 will extend to him, once the first start is signalled, no more compassion than he ever showed to any rival in the years of his astonishing dominance, first with Benetton in 1994 and '95 and then with Ferrari in five seasons from 2000 to 2004.
Those were extended essays in both self-absorption and, ultimately, a brilliant capacity to draw all possible advantage from the resources of a renascent Ferrari and the often arrogant acumen of his technical director, Brawn.
Once Brawn was asked how Ferrari would react to projected limits on track testing, an initiative designed to create a rather more level playing field. The response was crushing. Ferrari would probably build another wind tunnel and hire some more engineers.
It was possible to detect the flicker of a cold smile on Schumacher's normally impassive face.
He had the same demeanour after those notorious incidents involving Britain's Damon Hill in Adelaide in 1994 and Canada's Jacques Villeneuve in Jerez three years later — and then, in 2006, when it was decided he had quite cynically parked his car at the pivotal Rascasse corner in Monaco at precisely the time his fiercest rival, Alonso, was on his qualifying lap.
The stewards dismissed Schumacher's injured innocence and moved him from the front to the back of the grid. What no one could ever do, at least not until this weekend and the potential for ensuing dramas that have so riveted the sport, was separate the man from a destiny to win in most any circumstances that had become an intrinsic element of his psyche.
Before the Monaco eruption, he filled a big room in the casino at the top of the hill to answer an insistent question. When would he go — wouldn't the age of 37, accompanied by an unrivalled haul of seven world titles, be an appropriate moment? “I will go,” he said, “when I have decided that I can no longer achieve the standards I have set for myself, quite simply when I feel I have done enough to satisfy my ambition.”
In the debate that followed there were few questions about the extent of the void he would leave and for many that was still evident even with the dog-fight victories and controversies of Alonso and Hamilton and last season's winning but often fraught campaign by Button.
The reigning world champion's quip this week that the presence of Schumacher made him feel young was an eye-catching quote and Hamilton was also in cheery mood when the publicity caravan began to roll.
However, there has to be some speculation about whether that sense of well-being will remain quite so strong when Schumacher returns the silver of Mercedes to its first starting grid since 1955, when executives in Stuttgart decided that they had nothing more to achieve than a continuing statement of such vast superiority it had been stripped of all drama and intrigue.
One theory now is that in reacting to a sense of emptiness that came when he walked away from his machine for the last time, has revealed an ache that might never be removed.
Eddie Jordan, who gave Schumacher his first Grand Prix drive, has expressed his doubts and concerns most eloquently, saying, “He must be out of his mind. He hasn't a hope of adding an eighth world title. If I was his father I would say, why son, why? He's heading into a situation where he could become a sad, rejected man. As an individual with his sporting legacy, you have to give up your sport, not the sport giving you up, and he's putting himself in that position.”
So why, Schu, why? It was the question that was heaped upon Ali before and after his failed last stand and if most suspected that in his case it was money we know that it cannot be so with a man who has already donated many millions to charity. We will know better in the next few weeks and months, when we see how he handles a pack with no mind for history, no eagerness to see in what he is today much anything of what he was four years ago.
One thing at least seems certain. Michael Schumacher is still racing harder against no one more than himself.