It's the run-up to Christmas 2009, and Formula One is buzzing with rumours to the effect that Michael Schumacher may be considering a comeback. Commentators on the sport - some expert and some not so expert - are divided, some taking the story seriously while others dismiss it with a chuckle. Hasn't Schumacher been quoted over and over again saying how much he is enjoying retirement and how little he is missing Formula One? And yet ... Mercedes have just confirmed their acquisition of reigning world champion constructor Brawn, and world champion driver Jenson Button announces that he is leaving the team. So this frees up a cockpit - maybe for Schumacher after all? Michael himself, Ross Brawn and Norbert Haug, the central figures in the story, are keeping their cards close to their chests.
On 23rd December, just before everyone packs up for Christmas, the story turns out to be true. The new Mercedes GP Petronas team announces that Michael Schumacher has signed a contract for three years and, after three years' absence from Formula One racing, is returning for the 2010 season. This time in silver rather than red. Sensational news! The record-breaking world champion is back and, at the ripe old age of 40 plus, intends to lock horns with the young bucks. In the paddock, everyone is amazed, especially when Michael announces that he is aiming to take an eighth world title.
The story has an unprecedented impact. It makes the front page in all the papers and is the lead story on news channels around the world. Michael himself is full of anticipation: "The idea of having another crack at the world championship is exciting and extremely inspiring. Especially since I have the feeling that I am coming full circle after so many years in Formula One. After all, I had my first racing contract with Mercedes in Group C and at Le Mans, and it was Mercedes who helped me make the step up to Formula One." So after all the many years with Ferrari, Michael now returns to his German roots - even though there will always be a special place in his heart for his former Italian employer.
The season itself turns out to be difficult. The Mercedes W01 has been born from too many compromises to be a really strong contender. It is a transitional car from a transitional year and consequently turns out to be a blunt instrument on too many occasions for Michael and his young team-mate Nico Rosberg. In addition, the speed of change in Formula One, with new updates being introduced on virtually a weekly basis, does not exactly help Michael's cause: three years' lay-off is like an eternity in this fast-moving business. The cars and tyres have changed greatly, and because of the massive restrictions on testing, Michael is unable to try out all the new automatic features. It's as if a tennis player were to return to top-flight competition after three years and find that the game itself has changed: the size of the court, the height of the net, the pressure of the balls and the tensioning of the rackets - and to cap it all, he's not allowed to practise.
Nevertheless, Michael enjoys the challenge. He relishes the idea of being part of team building something worthwhile, and because it has become obvious during the winter tests that his own competitiveness as well as that of the car are not likely to be optimum in the first year, he accepts the setbacks as part of the (re)learning curve. During the 2009 season, he doesn't make a single appearance on the podium, but he is gradually working towards it. By the end of the year, he will know for sure that adjustment to the new Formula One has taken longer than he expected, but at the same time, the process has been a success and that he can still mix it with the world's elite.
So the schedule remains unchanged - three years to reclaim the title. "Of course I would have preferred it if the first year had gone better," says Michael. "But we are going in the right direction, and I think that we can eventually win the world championship. That's what we are aiming for. All the indications are that, in our second year together, we'll be strong enough to secure podium finishes and even outright wins. I'm not sure that we are yet strong enough to take the world championship. That will be our target in Year Three."