The guy who engineered Jacques Villeneuve’s move to Formula One back in 1996 was Bernie Ecclestone.
Ever the marketing man, Ecclestone was worried that people were losing interest in F1 because Michael Schumacher was dominating (17 victories in 33 races in ‘94 and ‘95), Nigel Mansell had lost his magic after going off to race in CART and the only other driver of note, Damon Hill, had the charisma of a rug.
Ecclestone knew he needed a star – someone who had speed plus style. He needed someone flamboyant. And, hey, if he happened to have a name that would capture the hearts of F1 fans worldwide, so much the better.
Enter Jacques Villeneuve.
Fast forward to 2009-2010.
The new World Champion, Jenson Button, is a pretender. The World Champion once-removed, Lewis Hamilton, fell flat on his face when it came time to defend his title but seemed to have lost his luster in any event. The World Champion twice-removed, Kimi Raikkonen, has been exiled to Elba (otherwise known as the World Rally Championship).
The challengers? Only one, really. Sebastien Vettel is a nice young guy – and that’s the problem. He’s too nice. There’s no swagger, no arrogance about him. Sure, he’s a good driver and will probably be great before he’s through, but that doesn’t sell tickets and an impresario like Ecclestone knows it.
In Bernie’s mind, it was 1994-95 all over again. The sport would be in trouble in 2010 unless a star was born – or re-born. Someone with speed and style. Someone flamboyant. Someone with a legendary name.
Someone like Michael Schumacher.
Now, the industry that is Formula One is dog-eat-dog, give-and-take unlike just about any other. The sport’s relationship with the media is particularly fascinating. Report the right thing and you’re in everybody’s good books. Report (or say) the wrong thing and you’ll find yourself on Elba with Kimi.
In short, reporters who cover F1 as their beat get access to people and events at Bernie’s pleasure and, as a result, are beholden to him.
When Felipe Massa was injured, Bernie – ever the opportunist – saw his chance. A phone call here, an email there and the return-of-Michael-Schumacher media campaign began in earnest. It is no coincidence that it started en masse and has never let up. Sure, there were bumps in the road – a motorcycle neck injury kept Michael from making his return with Ferrari – but there has literally not been a day since when there hasn’t been a "will he?" or "won’t he?" story coming from this paper or that Internet site.
Schumacher’s manager would say this one day, Ferrari’s management would say that the next. Michael, himself, would say maybe – "but I'm definitely thinking about it." Niki Lauda and Keke Rosberg would chime in with their two cents.
All this has been no accident. You can bet your bottom dollar that Bernie Ecclestone has been pulling the strings on this story from the start. Michael Schumacher’s official announcement today that he will drive for Mercedes GP in 2010 is the culmination of his efforts.
The man is a genius. Formula One has been saved once again.