October 22, 2006, was supposed to be goodbye. After 249 races in Formula One Michael Schumacher said farewell to the sport with a thrilling drive to fourth place in his Ferrari at the Brazilian Grand Prix in Sao Paulo as his bid to win an eighth world championship ended in failure as the Spaniard Fernando Alonso prevailed. A tearful Schumacher had confirmed his intention to hang up his helmet at the Italian Grand Prix a month earlier and he left the sport as the most successful driver in the sport's history, with seven world titles, 91 wins and 68 pole positions just some of the records he claimed.
Thirty-four months later, Schumacher was all set to return to the cockpit next weekend for the European Grand Prix to reach the 250-race milestone at the ripe old age of 40. He was to stand in for the injured Felipe Massa, who is recovering from the head injuries he suffered at last month's Hungarian Grand Prix after being hit in the helmet by a loose spring that came away from Rubens Barrichello's Brawn GP car.
An aggravated neck injury put paid to those hopes, following which the legend was replaced by lesser known Luca Badoer, the Ferrari team's test driver. The question to be answered, therefore, is what could Schumacher have done had he made this comeback? In reality the German driver never did go away altogether. He stayed on with Ferrari in an advisor capacity after retiring, and even tested for them at the end of the 2007 season and at the start of 2008, demonstrating he had lost little of his pace as he proved as fast as race drivers Kimi Raikkonen and Massa.
He also represented Ferrari as an ambassador, worked with the team on the pitwall at some races and was a great help to Massa last year, offering his former teammate guidance as his battled Lewis Hamilton for the championship. This only goes to show that Schumacher would in all probability have exceeded expectations had he raced in Valencia. It was clear that Schumacher missed racing - he even raced motorbikes until an accident in testing in February gave him the neck injury. If it was not for the cost-cutting change to the regulations that banned mid-season testing then he would have been sure to have continued doing the odd test this year.
Circumstances, though, could have given him a chance to return to the wheel and to showcase his talent for just a few races more. Most crucially, it would have given him a chance to say farewell to his fans properly - something that was important to Schumacher as his image was always the greatest in the sport due to his controversial title finale collisions with Damon Hill (in 1994) and with Jacques Villeneuve (in 1997).
He is loved in Germany and in Italy, for his part in helping rejuvenate Ferrari, but large parts of the motorsport fanbase only warmed to him in his latter days. His comments on his personal website in the days following the announcement indicated he had been monitoring heavily how his prospective return was perceived by the public. "It's incredible how much support I have been getting from all over the world. It feels as if a flush of positive energy is coming over me," he said.
"I accepted the challenge and as you all know I love challenges. It seems as if my fans love them too." Apart from the regrettable incident in Monaco - when he was disqualified from qualifying for appearing to crash deliberately in order to secure pole position - Schumacher proved a popular personality in his final season as he pulled back a 25-point lead on Alonso's Renault before an engine failure in Japan ultimately wrecked his title challenge. Spectators relished watching the greatest driver of his generation taking on the best driver of the new generation in Alonso. So the return of the German would not have just excited fans, but the drivers as well.
The likes of Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel would have been relishing the chance to share the track with statistically the most successful driver in the sport's history. Another thing that would have appealed to Schumacher is the fact that he would have raced under no pressure. He would have driven the car for his own pleasure and without championships at stake. After winning his first world title in 1994, the only times the German was not racing for a title in the latter half of a season were 1996 and 2005, while there were two races in 1999 when he returned from a broken leg, but he was driving to try and help then teammate Eddie Irvine take the title.
Schumacher never had the chance to enjoy his farewell to the sport in 2006 as he was engrossed in a thrilling tussle with Alonso for the championship in those final three races after he had confirmed he was quitting, a battle that went down to the final lap in Brazil before the Spanish driver prevailed. With Massa's return uncertain, there was a decent chance Schumacher would have driven the rest of the season and that his second farewell to Formula One would have been on November 1 in Abu Dhabi, adding an extra storyline to what was building up to be a memorable finale to the season with Jenson Button having had his lead at the top trimmed by the race by the Red Bull duo of Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber.
As to what he could have done on his return, well the intriguing thing is that anything could have happened, but Schumacher genuinely had nothing to lose. No doubt it would have taken a couple of races before Schumacher was up to speed. But he would surely have been quick - and with favourite tracks including Spa-Francorchamps, Monza and Suzuka to race on - he would have enjoyed driving the new breed of cars with slick tyres.
As to what he could have achieved, the F60 has improved since a low-key start to the season with two podiums coming in the last two races, although the car does not look like a race winner even now. Whatever Schumacher did he would have been under no pressure. If he struggled his age and the car would have been considered as factors. If he won a race or even got on the podium or took a pole then his legend would have only grown further.
He had nothing to lose, which is more than could be said of the man he would have partnered. Since winning the championship in 2007, Raikkonen has been accused of lacking motivation and losing the edge that made him one of the fastest guys on the grid. This was a chance for Schumacher to say goodbye in style and the German would surely have taken the chance with both hands. firstname.lastname@example.org