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GP Week : Issue 79
Coming back after a 40-month- long sabbatical, it was always going to take Michael Schumacher a few races to get up to speed. Michael was adamant everything was going according to plan despite lapping long way off Nico Rosberg's pace during the first three weekends. Michael was chirpy and relaxed. It was a bit disconcerting. Then China happened, and Michael's smile became a grimace. It was, he said, a weekend to forget. So what went wrong and why? In China, Michael was struggling for traction on the exit of slow speed corners. This was due to a combination of low front downforce, how the W01 mismanages its tyres, and bad balance. Mercedes GP boss Ross Brawn has confirmed that the team under-reacted to the new-for-2010 narrower tyres and, as a result, the car naturally understeers: "New regulations have made the front tyres narrower, which means you need to generate more downforce at the front than before. Michael needs to be able to lean heavily on the front of the car to make his driving style work." The weight distribution is also wrong. The team has brought weight as far forward in the car as they can, in order to work the front tyres harder, but this means the rear slides around a lot, eating the rear rubber and preventing the necessary traction. Nico Rosberg found this too. Tyre degradation forced him off the circuit at one point, yielding the lead to Jenson Button. But the 24 year-old was still able to drag it to P3 -- his second podium in succession. Michael limped across the line in tenth. "It's not the difficult corners, but the technically simple ones [where Michael is struggling]. Until now he has been getting closer and closer to Nico, so what happened in China is totally against the trend," said Brawn. Mercedes' vice president of motorsport, Norbert Haug, suspected a chassis flaw on the number three car. Surely Schumi couldn't be that slow. "Give us a chance to look at that [theory] and we can come up with a good explanation," he said. The car is far from perfect in Nico's eyes, but it suits his style better than Michael's. That happens between team mates sometimes. It happened between Button and Rubens Barrichello at Brawn when the Brazilian couldn't get on top of the brakes. But, based on his track record, we expected Michael to drive around problems like this. "He can drive around any imbalance," said Ross Brawn in James Allen's 2007 book 'Michael Schumacher: The Edge of Greatness'. "This is also a weakness because it makes the difference between a good car and an average car less discernible in testing and you can easily misread how competitive a car really is."Well, the W01 looks competitive in Rosberg's hands, not so in Schumi's. Are those the wrinkles of doubt across the engineer's forehead? Schumacher had raced on grooved tyres for nine years before coming back to slicks this season. All the other drivers were forced to adapt to that rule change at the start of 2009, but they did so together. Nico has an extra year's worth of tyre knowledge over Schumi, who raced very different slicks from 1991-1997. Also the specific set of circumstances of the conditions in Shanghai exacerbated Schumacher's problem. He chose the soft tyre early in the race after he'd corrected the mistake of switching to intermediates. Most drivers who made that same choice at that point found that their car understeered and the left front grained badly, which was particularly bad for those with a dry set-up. It played very badly for Schumacher. Mercedes will be bringing a host of updates to Barcelona including a longer wheelbase chassis. This should cancel out the balance problem. It will be tailored to Michael's driving style. Rosberg might have seen that coming, but it hasn't dented his confidence: "I have quite a strong position now in the team which is really nice, so that's why I have quite high hopes for what's to come," said Nico in China's post race press conference, having denied he's now the team's number one driver. "From the beginning everybody saw Michael was number one and me number two. It's even. We both get the same possibilities, but of course I'm very, very happy with the way it's going for me." Rosberg says he's comfortable being Michael's team mate now, despite having reservations at the beginning. That's just another way of saying Michael is no longer a threat: "People have the wrong opinion of Michael. I thought that it wouldn't be a good thing to have him as team-mate but instead, I'm pleasantly surprised about it". In deference to the seven times world champion, though, he told La Gazzetta dello Sport: "I'm happy to be ahead of him, but 22