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When U-turns happen at high speed

Formula 1 champions who retired, then returned

Sarah Edworthy | March/April 2012

The 2007 Formula 1 world champion, Kimi Raikkonen, returned to the cockpit last month after a two-year break. And you have to wonder why. Has he not seen Michael Schumacher’s comeback? He may be a seven-times world champion, but Schumacher has yet to return to the podium in 38 grands prix with Mercedes following three years in golf-and-slippers mode.

Comebacks in F1 rarely pay off. The danger is not just that the ageing driver is overshadowed by his younger, sharper self. It is that a prolonged lacklustre presence calls into question whether he was ever that good. Schumacher reappeared as part of an all-German dream team—or dream marketing package —spearheading the new Mercedes Silver Arrows, a tag resonant with former glories. His inability to dominate as of old poses the question: was his return motivated by an insatiable hunger to win again, or was he lured back by an appealing idea, and then found his motivation unsustainable? Or is he simply not as great a driver as we thought? Were his title wins equally due to the contributions of others?

The exception is Niki Lauda, the Austrian driver of the 1970s, who bounced back successfully twice. His first comeback, in 1976, provided a Lazarus moment at Monza (now a YouTube favourite) when, with blood seeping from his bandaged head, he finished fourth in the Italian Grand Prix. Six weeks earlier his Ferrari had morphed into a fireball at the notorious Nürburgring in Germany. With third-degree burns on his head and wrists, broken bones and lungs scorched from inhaling toxic fumes, Lauda was given the last rites.

His second comeback, at McLaren in 1982 after two years out, was less about derring-do and all about financial woes. He worked meticulously to convince the sponsors, Marlboro, that he still had it. Two races in, he won the US Grand Prix at Long Beach, and two seasons later he claimed his third championship crown.

Alain Prost is the only other driver to win a comeback championship. Technically his fourth title was a triumph; in emotional and sporting terms, it was as interesting as watching Tarmac being cleaned. Returning from an enforced sabbatical after Ferrari sacked him too late in 1991 to land a competitive drive for 1992, the wily Prost manoeuvred himself into the dominant Williams team for 1993 and duly pulled off a clinical trouncing of inferior cars.

Raikkonen’s monosyllabic insouciance with the media will serve him well. But will his driving do the talking? A returning champion must measure up to younger, hungrier stars as well as to his own past glories. If every kind of storytelling, from the Bible to Hollywood, boils down to one of seven plots—tragedy, comedy, the quest, overcoming the monster, rags to riches, voyage and return, rebirth—the comeback starts as rebirth but soon twists into another storyline.

Remember Björn Borg and his wooden racket, returning after eight years to a tennis circuit ruled by graphite power: tragedy. He was a colossus laid low, failing to win a match in 12 tournaments. Or Nigel Mansell, who flounced off to America in 1992, returned in 1995 and found he was too fat to fit into his McLaren. Cue sniggering and a narky re-retirement. Most sportsmen find it hard enough to retire once.

Steve Redgrave did fulfil a quest to win five consecutive Olympic rowing golds, despite ordering the public to shoot him should he be seen near a boat after medal number four, and George Foreman starred in the overcoming-the-monster scenario when he knocked out Michael Moorer to become the oldest-ever heavyweight champion, 17 years after he had retired. Niki Lauda’s 1980s comeback is a quirky twist on rags-to-riches, while the cancer survivor Lance Armstrong’s failed comeback falls into the voyage-and-return category.

Why are comebacks so hard? The sports psychologist Dr Steve Bull, author of “The Game Plan: Your Guide to Mental Toughness at Work”, argues that it is near-impossible to rejoin at elite level after a year or two out. “Standards go up and up, the margins between winning and losing get smaller and smaller. Athletes get fitter, their support becomes finer-tuned. It never surprises me that these comebacks do not materialise into something we want them to.”

An F1 comeback is not merely about man and mindset, but about machinery, and annual regulation changes. “Formula 1 is unique. If you don’t live it day and night, constantly perfecting yourself and working on it, it’s difficult to return,” says Gerhard Berger, the former Ferrari and McLaren driver, and Toro Rosso team owner. Schumacher puts his mediocre showings down to an inability to interpret tyre performance due to fewer practice opportunities. His return in 2010 coincided with a ban on in-season testing.

The ultimate comeback flop was Alan Jones, the 1980 world champion, who came back once and did so badly that he tried again, with equally poor results. When a sport offers money, glamour, adrenalin, adoration and an addictively simple rhythm to life—practise, race, fly—it is hard for sitting at home to compete. “If a sportsman doesn’t have a new challenge ready to move into,” Bull says, “they dwell on what they are giving up. Their personal identity is wrapped up in their sport. When they withdraw, their self-esteem is challenged. Who am I? What am I doing? Let’s get back to what I know best…”

F1 is a money-devouring sport. A team needs sponsors who crave publicity. A returning star brings guaranteed media coverage. He can be an asset to the team and the sport, even if he makes an ass of himself. 

The Formula 1 season, starts March 16th, Melbourne 

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