On Sunday, Michael Schumacher scored his first podium since returning to Formula One three seasons ago but his third-place finish in the European Grand Prix at Valencia, Spain, which was won by Fernando Alonso with Kimi Raikkonen second, likely won’t save his seat with Mercedes for 2013.
If the way Mercedes boss Norbert Haug was talking about him in Montreal a few weeks ago is any indication, that is.
Haug is in charge of all motorsports for Mercedes – including F1 and the German Touring Car Championship (DTM) – and he was largely dismissive of the seven-time world champion when asked about him during a breakfast meeting with Canadian reporters on the first day of the Canadian Grand Prix.
It wasn’t what he said about the 43-year-old Schumacher that was startling. It was the way he said it.
In fact, when you read the words, he seems to be a big supporter of the legendary racer. But trust me: he might have spoken the words but his hand was waving away from his face in the manner of someone shooing away a fly.
I had asked whether Mercedes was optimistic about Schumacher’s chances in Montreal, considering he’d set fast time at the Monaco Grand Prix the week previous and had nearly made it to the podium in Canada a year earlier.
Haug, a former journalist, mused that being optimistic doesn’t help in today's Formula One.
"Yes, he was on the podium here (in 2011) until the last lap, or the last couple of laps (when he was passed for third). But you need to get the job done.
"We have 15 cars within six-tenths of a second of each other in Formula One and that says it all. If you get it just a little bit wrong . . . "
Dean McNulty of the Toronto Sun followed up by asking about a new contract.
"That is something that is not decided yet," Haug said. "We have a contract that runs out at the end of this year and we will take a decision together later in the year."
Then he said these words:
"You can see the speed of a driver best during qualifying. He has done well there, better than the two-time world champion, in fact. It just goes to show that the basics are still there.
"But we are a young team now." (My italics.) "Michael, of course, is very experienced but his time in Formula One until 2006 was a very different period. Testing was allowed, tire development was allowed for the particular car for the particular team. Now it’s controlled tires, the same for everybody. You have to adapt to that."
The inference was that Schumacher wasn’t adapting as well as someone younger might.
But he sure looked good Sunday in Spain. As was the case with Alonso (see blog post below), he needed some help and a lot of luck to get up to third.
But third place is a podium and you can’t take that away from anybody.
Mercedes might not want Michael Schumacher back after this year but the old guy is going to go out looking like a champion. He qualified 12th and finished third on Sunday, which is pretty up and walkin’ good.
His much younger teammate, Nico Rosberg, who turns 27 on Wednesday and who’d outqualified his elder by six positions, could only manage a sixth-place finish.
The adage about hockey goalies – you have to be lucky to be good and good to be lucky – could have applied to Alonso on Sunday.
After missing pole position Q3 qualifying on Saturday, and starting the European Grand Prix from 11th position, the Spanish hero proved on Sunday that he’s the driver of the year by bulling his way through to win the race at Valencia.
The two-time world champion was quite caught up in the emotion of the moment, first by tearing up during the playing of his country’s national anthem and later by saying that the victory was the greatest of his career.
Yes, Sebastien Vettel's Red Bull-Renault had to break down while leading, and Romain Grosjean had to suffer a mechanical misfortune with his Lotus-Renault that took him out of the contest, but Alonso was the class of the field (closely followed by Schumacher on this day) and was not to be denied.
Like Nigel Mansell in another era, Alonso has the heart of a lion and a mindset that won’t allow him to be beaten once he has the bit in his teeth. He was not to be denied.
A couple of quick observations about the F1 race:
– How many years have they had a safety car in Formula One? How come it always looks like the first time?
– Marshals and corner works are out on the track pushing Vettel’s car out of the way and some dimwit flagger is waving a green flag. How does that happen?
(I’ll tell you how it happens: it’s a professional sport worth billions of dollars officiated in many ways by non-professionals working for a ham sandwich and a beer at the end of the day, which is ludicrous.)
– I watched the replay several times Sunday night and have changed my mind about the Maldonado-Hamilton accident. I originally thought Hamilton was the victim. He was – but he brought it on himself. He pushed Pastor wide – and off the track – but the Williams driver had to get back on the track or else run into a wall. Hamilton didn’t leave him room to re-enter and bam! So since Hamilton pushed him off the track in the first place, setting up the ensuing scenario, how come Pastor gets a 20-second penalty for the subsequent collision, dropping him to 12th from 10th?
– In the closing laps, every time Alonso passed a grandstand, those sitting there would rise in unison to wave and cheer and salute. There was a "wave" all the way around the circuit as Alonso drove to victory.
It reminded me of the glory days of Jacques Villeneuve in Formula One, when he would race in Montreal and it didn’t matter whether it was an out lap during practice or during the race itself: every time JV would drive past a grandstand, they would Rise up! Rise up!
It was glorious to watch then, as it was to watch on Sunday in Spain.
Quick observations on other weekend races:
– Villeneuve’s arrogance is getting a little tiresome. Okay, he might not have meant to nail Danica Patrick on the last lap of Saturday’s Nationwide Series race at Road America but it was damn careless of him, regardless of the circumstances, and his post-race comment of, "It didn’t have anything to do with me, I don’t care," was unacceptable.
It was your fault, Jacques. ‘Fess up like a man.
- Hey, the TV folks spent most of the hour before the NASCAR Sprint Cup race from Sonoma talking up the "tradin' paint" aspect of stock cars racing on road courses. The message was simple: sparks will fly today, folks.
Well, by NASCAR standards, it was kinda tame. They went ab out 80 laps before there was even a yellow; there were only a couple of fender-benders thereafter. Clint Bowyer won. Dale Jr. didn't.
– Twice during the weekend, Ron Fellows, a child of 52 who finished third in that Nationwide Series race, made reference to racing as "keeping him young." Ron , 52 is not old. Trust me. I know.
– The IZOD IndyCar Series might think it’s the cat’s meow but it’s anything but. To have a race in the series scheduled to start at 10 p.m. Eastern was stupid to start with. Then, of course, it rained and it didn’t get going till after 11 p.m. and finished well after midnight.
I am a rapid fan of Indy car racing but I fell asleep on my couch. I suspect I was not alone.
Want to hear something even more ridiculous? The Indy Lights race got rained out earlier so they decided to run it after the Indy car race. Those guys took the green shortly before 1 a.m.
Oh, here’s another one. You’ll love this. The original start, once the cars got rolling, was waved off because the two-seater Indy car carrying a "civilian" was still on the track! The fact that Dario Franchitti's engine blew up moments later saved the series from certain embarrassment over that miscue.
– Talking about embarrassment, though, there was supposed to be a Plan B in place in case the race in China had to be cancelled. It was. Cancelled, that is. Where is Plan B?
- Poor James Hinchcliffe. The Oakville racer has had a stellar season in Indy car and went into the race at Iowa in second place in the standings. He spun out and crashed mid-way through and today's he's all the way back in sixth place.
Just like in F1 - Alonso is now leading the championship, replacing Hamilton who dropped to third place - a bad race in Indy car can cost you.
At Canadian Tire Motorsport Park (courtesy of Ryan Chalmers):
The final day of the Sports Car Doubleheader Weekend at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park saw non-stop action with five races to cap off the weekend.
In the Pirelli World Challenge Championship, Charlotte, N.C., native Mike Skeen made it a weekend sweep in his Chevrolet Corvette taking the checkered flag by 12.284 seconds over Maryland resident Lawson Aschenbach in a Porsche 911. Alex Figge of Denver, Colo., finished third in the GT class driving a Volvo S60.
Aurora driver Mark Wilkens drove his Kia Motors Optima to a win in front of his home track fans in the GTS class.
In Touring class action, Markham’s Gary Kwok drove his Honda Civic to victory for a second straight day. Andre Rapone of Thornhill won for the third time over the weekend in the B-Spec class.
Scarborough racer Mike Mallais won both Porsche 944 Cup races in the Super Cup class while Coldwater’s Randy Smith and Tyler Comat of Burlington won in Cup class respectively.
The Can-Am Cup race in the Ontario Formula Ford Championship was won by Orangeville’s Caitlin Johnston.
(Norris Note: Way to go, Caitlin!!!)
In the Canadian Touring Car Championship (courtesy of Dominique Longval):
Round 5 Saturday at Mirabel Airport's Circuit ICAR saw Sasha Anis of Mississauga win in a Hyundai Genesis with Benjamin Distaulo of Lorraine, Que., second in a Honda Civic and Philip Fayer of Montreal third in a Pontiac Solstice. Michel Sallenbach of Roxton Pond, Que., in his MINI Cooper and Damon Sharpe of Tottenham in a Honda Civic Si were one-two in Touring Class. Jacques Belanger of Quebec City finished third in his Honda Civic. Nick Wittmer of Hudson, Que., and Simon Dion-Viens of St-Joseph de Kamouraska, Que., were first and second in Honda Fits in B-Spec with James Bergeron third in a Mazda.
Round 6 Sunday, also at Mirabel, saw the same three - Anis, Distaulo and Fayer - repeat their Saturday finish in Super Touring. In Touring, Belanger won with Sallenbach second and Adam Isman of Vancouver third in a MINI Cooper. Wittmer led from start to finish in B-Spec with Dion-Viens second and Bergeron third.
The CTTC will next race at Le Circuit-Mont Tremblant on July 6th and 7th.
At Toronto Motorsports Park (courtesy of Bruce Mehlenbacher and Tim Miller):
At the Canadian Nitro Nationals, three-time PMRA champion Bruce Boland returned to his winning ways, capturing the Pro Modified Racing Association final. Michael Hinbest drove his Top Dragster to his first win in Quick 32 Sportsman Series racing and Pete Stewart took another win in the PBSS.