The return of Michael Schumacher to Formula One, three years after he retired, appears to have moved a step closer with the news from the Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo that the German is very close to a deal with Mercedes GP. Ever since Mercedes GP took over a controlling share in Brawn GP there have been rumours of a comeback by the most successful driver in the sport's history.
But while Mercedes bosses have said they would be delighted to have the 40-year-old in their team next year, there had been little else of substance to back up all the speculation. Di Montezemolo let the cat well and truly out of the bag on Friday when he said he had spoken to his former driver, who won five of his seven world championships with the Ferrari team, and confirmed he was close to making the decision to return to the grid.
"He phoned me and he told me that there is a very, very, very strong possibility [of racing for Mercedes]," he said. "Having said that, it is not 100 per cent decided. But that is what he said." Ferrari had already said they would not stand in Schumacher's way if he wanted to get back behind the wheel in Formula One for the first time since the Brazilian Grand Prix of October 2006. In retirement, the winner of 91 races has done some test work and remained in an advisory role with the Italian team.
He had planned to return in the summer as a replacement driver for Felipe Massa after the Brazilian's accident in Hungary, where he was struck on the helmet by debris from another car, which left him with a fractured skull. The only thing that stopped Schumacher then was doubts over whether his neck could withstand the G-force pressures of racing as a result of an accident he suffered in a motorcycle accident in January.
In the end caution won the day and Schumacher did not return, which was probably a good thing ultimately as the F60 was a beast of a car and Giancarlo Fisichella and Luca Badoer, who both ended up standing in for Massa for the final seven races, struggled and failed to score a point between them. After racing and being on Ferrari's payroll for the last 14 years in total it would be a surreal sight to see Schumacher race in anything other than their scarlet - a feeling shared by di Montezemolo.
"The real Schumacher, the one I know, will always remain in the Ferrari family," Montezemolo said. "Then there's his totally identical twin brother who seems to have the idea in his head to go and race in Formula One with Mercedes. "I don't know him personally, but it's clear that we cannot offer him anything: we have two young drivers like Felipe Massa and Fern-ando Alonso, who we are expecting a lot from next year."
Schumacher's neck is probably the key to whether he will partner compatriot Nico Rosberg at Mercedes for the 2010 campaign. If it is seen to have strengthened sufficiently then it is almost certain that he will sign with the German manufacturers, which would set up a mouthwatering grid. Schumacher would race against the 2008 world champion Lewis Hamilton and this year's runner-up Sebastian Vettel for the first time, as well as renewing his rivalry with Alonso, with whom he duelled for the championship in 2006, and taking on the new champion Jenson Button, who he is effectively replacing after the Briton signed for McLaren.
Schumacher has lost none of his enthusiasm for the sport, testing for Ferrari and appearing at a number of races on the pitwall, including Abu Dhabi, where talks over a move to Mercedes are believed to have been initiated. Mercedes won't be completely unfamiliar to Schumacher. At the helm is team principal Ross Brawn, who stayed on in the role following the takeover. Schumacher and Brawn go way back, winning titles with Benetton and then at Ferrari.
They made for a formidable team, with Schumacher's speed and consistency going hand in hand with the tactical cunning of Brawn. * With agencies