ABU DHABI // When Michael Schumacher shocked the Formula One fraternity last December by announcing his intentions to return to the sport full-time with Mercedes GP this season, one man was not surprised. Heinz-Harald Frentzen, who raced for Sauber, Williams, Jordan and Arrows during an 11-year career in the series, grew up racing against Schumacher in karts and then in sports car racing and in Formula One.
The 42-year-old got to know his German compatriot well and always felt that a comeback was likely from the seven-time world champion, who had initially quit racing with the Ferrari team at the end of the 2006 season before making his return this season with Mercedes. Talking during a break from his work at Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi this week as he tested the six different car brands competing in the GT1 World Championship to help the FIA evaluate their performance, he spoke of his feelings on Schumacher's comeback.
"I knew Michael when we were growing up together racing karts and he always said that when he stopped racing and his career was over that he would go back to karting," he said. "It is what he loves. He grew up by a go-karting track and that is all he has done in his life, race. That is 80 per cent of the decision when you stop; if you have had enough of it, and he still loves it so I was not surprised at all.
"A lot of people were surprised when he made his decision but I wasn't. "I think that even if there was no support from Bernie [Ecclestone, the Formula One chief] that he would have come back anyway. "If he could have come back with Ferrari he would have been back even earlier." Frentzen, whose last race in Formula One was in Japan in October 2003, feels that Schumacher did not help his chances of walking away from the sport by staying involved with Ferrari.
The German remained as a consultant, often sitting on the pitwall at races, and even testing on a couple of occasions. Frentzen said: "Sitting on the pit-wall to watch the race is the worst thing you can do. "When you stop you need to find something else to do and move away." Frentzen himself raced in the German Touring Car Championship for three years after Formula One and also took part in GT competitions, but is not racing any more.
Schumacher's return to F1 has hardly been glorious with just nine points to show for his opening three races this campaign, and he is 30 points behind Felipe Massa, the championship leader, ahead of Sunday's fourth round in China. Frentzen has been surprised by Schumacher's form and said: "It has been interesting and whether Michael has lost a bit of reaction time that is the question you have to ask yourself."
What has been the most surprising aspect of the season so far has been the fact that Schumacher has been out-qualified and out-raced by his younger teammate and compatriot Nico Rosberg. Rosberg has finished fifth twice and achieved Mercedes's first podium of the season with his third place in Malaysia, and Frentzen believes that rather than it simply being Schumacher doing a poor job it is more likely that Rosberg has raised his game.
"I think Nico has been spot on and he has been full of concentration," he said. "He is doing no mistakes and he has improved. I saw a number of his races at Williams where he would go over the limit and spin or make some mistake, which is normal when you go over the limit. He seems to be really concentrating and has been very fast and not made any mistakes and these have for sure been his best performances."