BBC SPORT | Motorsport | Formula 1
A lunch with Ferrari's president
Post categories: Formula 1
BBC Sport blog editor | 17:30 UK time, Friday, 18 December 2009
The prospect of Michael Schumacher racing again in Formula 1, in tandem with his old partner Ross Brawn, has generated huge excitement and anticipation around the world but at a snow-covered Maranello this week, Ferrari president Luca di Montezemelo appeared overwhelmed instead by a mixture of surprise, frustration and wistfulness at the prospect.
"Everbody in life can do what they prefer and I understand that there is somebody at 41 years old who wants to try again," he said.
"But it's another Michael. I know Michael, and the real Michael has confirmed to me that he will finish his career at Ferrari."
It was as if the 62-year-old Italian didn't want to believe what Schumacher himself had said during their phone conversation on Wednesday.
And yet it was the seven time world champion's former boss who'd called on the German little more than four months ago to break his retirement for that abortive comeback in place of the injured Felipe Massa.
Did Di Montezemolo not fully appreciate that he had reignited the flame that had been reluctantly turned down in 2006 as Kimi Raikkonen was moved in to Ferrari in Schumacher's place?
Is the Ferrari president kicking himself for not doing more to ensure that F1's most successful driver was back on the grid for Ferrari?
Or does he fear that Schumacher may do his fearsome reputation more harm than good by trying to beat the likes of Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel - who is almost 20 years his junior?
Throughout a typically good-natured, wide ranging discussion, over lunch at Ferrari's Fiorano test track, Di Montezemelo consistently talked about the returning Schumacher as the "twin" of the "real" champion.
Di Montezemolo and and team principal Stefano Domenicali, who was also at the lunch, referred in similar terms to Raikkonen and his disappointing performances in the second half of 2008.
On this occasion, Di Montezemolo said the Finn "went around fishing" while Massa was fighting it out with Hamilton for the championship!
But listening to him talk about how quickly Schumacher had agreed to replace Massa in the summer of this year underlined why the speculation about a comeback never went away.
Michael Schumacher and Luca di MontezemoloSchumacher won five titles for Ferrari under Di Montezemolo's stewardship of the team
"At the end of July, when I called him into my office, I said: 'Listen, I need you to replace Felipe," Di Montezemolo explained. "For five minutes, not 10 minutes, (it was) no, no, then yes!"
"'You can convince me very well,' he said. It was not the truth. He was ready to be convinced. That was a different story.
"Unfortunately he was not able to prove himself. By replacing Massa in the middle of the season in a car that was not so competitive meant the pressure was not so big."
Di Montezemolo also revealed a little about the reasons for Schumacher's retirement in 2006.
"He told me that if he could arrive on the Saturday, not the Friday, just to make the qualification for the pole, then the race and then disappear, yes (that would be good)."
Given the current limit on testing, which could impact significantly on him ahead of the opening grand prix in Bahrain next March, you'd expect Schumacher to take a different view on time in the car during Friday's practice sessions should he return in 2010.
Having Schumacher on stand-by in case Massa's injuries prevented him from driving again was, apparently, never an option.
The German's own neck injury was clearly a major problem, with a doctor's decision only likely at the turn of the year.
And once Massa was making good progress and negotiations with Renault over Alonso's move had gathered pace towards a deal for 2010, there was no place for Schumacher at his old team.
But that's not to say Di Montezemolo didn't want him racing again in a Ferrari.
"We tried to push for the third car, not for Ferrari, but a third Ferrari managed by another team," he explained.
"Formula 1 needs competitive teams, competitive drivers and to see Ferrari with an American team or a German team, or Spanish or British would be fantastic."
"I tried to do this. In that case the real Michael, not the new one, because he looked like he was ready to race with us."
US F1 or Campos with Michael Schumacher... intriguing.
But would a new entry really have been of genuine interest to a driver who's accustomed to being a championship contender?
His imminent return with the world champion team, albeit rebranded as Mercedes, would seem a suitable answer.
Without doubt, that prospect turns up the heat on the Ferrari design team to prepare a stronger car for 2010 than in 2009.
Di Montezemolo was keen to talk up the changes made by Domenicali to have "fresh air" in the team, referring in particular to the replacement of Gilles Simon by Luca Marmorini as engine and electronics director.
The team principal sitting opposite at the lunch table, and only referred to by his last name, was left in no doubt what was expected, with a double world champion such as Alonso brought into the line-up.
The Spanish contingent around the table hung on Di Montezemolo's every word, particularly when it was made clear that their man was expected to be a team player.
"One year without victory seems like a scandal. I'm disappointed. We were used to win (championships) in the last 10 years. We have to do a competitive car on the track," Domenicali was told.
The presentation box containing a 1:16 model Brawn double diffuser, with the words "If only we had been so sneaky..." was intended as a festive joke, but Domenicali and his engineers can't afford to be caught out again.
At least the Ferrari name remains in F1.
Mention of the third car idea recalled memories of the acrimony between the teams and the sport's leading officials over budgets, regulations and governance for much of the early part of last season.
"This was the only year since I became president of Ferrari when I was determined to stop Formula 1," admitted Di Montezemolo.
"It was a unanimous decision of the board - too much polemics, rules, not enough research.
"Now everything is over, even if we have paid a big price. Not to have BMW, not to Toyota, to have Renault in a different situation is not good for F1."
Even though he is no longer the chairman of the Formula 1 Teams' Association (Fota), Di Montzemolo still views himself as one of the sport's key statesmen.
He said he was certain that the priority of the new FIA president, Jean Todt - once his employee at Ferrari - "to recreate a different dialogue and atmosphere, be sure of the credibility of the sport".
(His predecessor, Max Mosley, hardly got a mention. Funny that...)
Bernie Ecclestone and Formula 1 Management (FOM), he said, "had to promote and modernise Formula 1 ready for the new years".
"This is what Ferrari will heavily try to improve in the next months. Ferrari will stay in Formula 1 until Formula 1 isn't Formula 1."
Whether his intended triangle of goodwill between FOM, Fota and the FIA can work in harmony is another fascination for 2010.
But it's my guess that Michael Schumacher's comeback will ensure most attention is riveted to the track.
Certainly, the manner in which the last Ferrari he helped develop, the 458 Italia, hurtled me round two post-lunch laps of Fiorano in the hands of a test driver, suggested Schumacher had lost none of his touch behind the wheel.