So who is the real comeback king of 2012? 2007 World Champion Kimi Raikkonen, now at Lotus, in his first season back after two years away in the World Rally Championship? Or Michael Schumacher, seven times world champion, in his third year back with the Mercedes team? Let’s look at some statistics from their 2012 seasons to date and compare with their past records in Formula One.
Kimi Raikkonen’s 18th place in qualifying for his comeback race in Melbourne was his worst since the 2006 Bahrain Grand Prix. On that occasion his suspension broke during qualifying, forcing him to start last. He had previously started lower in Bahrain and at Imola in 2004, when engine changes led to 10-place grid penalties, while he was 20th in Canada in 2003 after a qualifying crash. Sergio Perez’s gearbox change penalty moved the Finn up to 17th, the same spot from which he won the 2005 Japanese GP.
In Malaysia, Kimi secured the 36th fastest lap of his F1 career. He lies third in the all-time rankings, behind Michael Schumacher (76) and Alain Prost (41). He has scored a fastest lap in every year of his F1 tenure bar 2002 and 2009.
In Bahrain, Raikkonen was back on the podium (his 63rd) for the first time since the 2009 Italian GP. In Germany, the Iceman finished on the podium for the fourth time this season, despite having always started outside the top three. This year he has started fourth twice (in China and Spain).
Raikkonen finished in second place for the fourth time at the Hungaroring, and for the third occasion he was beaten to the flag by Hamilton (2007, 2009 and 2012). In 2003 he lost out to Alonso (when the Spaniard took his maiden win).
The Finn is now considered to be on a roll and is only a point behind Lewis Hamilton in the championship standings. Some pundits are tipping him as dark horse for this year’s title, even.
So now let’s look at the great German in the Mercedes this year, now in the third year of his comeback. In Australia, Schumacher’s fourth spot on the grid was his best since making his F1 comeback in 2010. The German had previously managed a pair of fifths. It was the fifth time a Mercedes has made the front two rows since making its F1 comeback as a constructor, also in 2010. It was also the first time in 39 races that Schumacher out qualified Vettel.
Meanwhile in Sakhir, Schumacher fought back from 22nd on the grid to 10th. The German has scored points on every occasion (four times) in his career that he has started outside the top 20.
Before his retirement in 2006, Michael Schumacher never qualified lower than sixth in Canada. Since his comeback began in 2010, he has never managed higher than eighth (last year). This year he was ninth.
In many respects, this is Schumacher’s best showing since his return, but it has been a frustrating campaign to say the least. It was not until Silverstone in July that Michael managed to finish two races in a row.
In Valencia, Michael Schumacher put an end to the longest podium drought of his career (47 races) with his third place – which also made him the twelfth oldest driver ever to step on the podium, at 43 years and five months. The all-time record belongs to Luigi Fagioli who was 53, but Michael is the oldest podium finisher since Jack Brabham finished second in the 1970 British Grand Prix when he 44 and 3 months. The German’s first podium since his comeback in 2010 was the 155th of his career. It was also the first time Raikkonen and Schumacher had been on the podium together in years. They joined Fernando Alonso on the podium for the first time since Magny Cours at the 2005 French Grand Prix. On that day they finished in the exact same positions as Valencia 2012.
So who has had the better comeback, Schumacher or Raikkonen? It is fair to say that the real comeback king of 2012 has found it tough at times to make a success of returning to the sport. When he left, it was not particularly on a high note and it was right to leave then.
His post-F1 life had been a time for taking stock on everything that had gone wrong, and trying out different machinery at different tracks. He loved the competition but it just was not the same as Formula One. It is what he had grown up wanting to do, and while it had been fun doing something else in that post-F1 time, starting grand’s prix was the goal.
The changing political landscape of F1 certainly helped make that return possible. His former boss – with whom he’d had some good times but equally whose relationship was pushed to the edge as they parted ways – had moved on to very different things, and that particular generation of team bosses had been replaced by a different type of leader. Engineers were in charge now, who understood who the talented drivers were. And whilst it was tough at first, he was brilliant when it mattered – aggressive, brave and mature, making the best of the 2012 car whilst others faltered.
This driver secured his first career fastest lap in Monaco. France had been waiting for a fastest lap since the 1996 Monaco Grand Prix (with Jean Alesi).
In Australia, this man took his best F1 grid spot with third. It was also the best qualifying performance for a car bearing the Lotus name since Nelson Piquet took third on the grid for the 1988 San Marino Grand Prix. The last time a French driver qualified as high was when Olivier Panis qualified third for the 2003 United States Grand Prix.
He recorded his first front row start in Formula 1 in Hungary. It’s the first time in more than 13 years since a Frenchman last started on the front row: Jean Alesi back in the 1999 French Grand Prix. In Britain, after falling to 22nd on lap three, he recovered brilliantly to finish sixth. In doing so he maintained a small personal record – he had been classified between second and sixth this year whenever he has finished. Perhaps it is unlucky that Silverstone made it four retirements so far and has completed the least amount of racing miles in the field this year.
The real comeback king this year isn’t Kimi Raikkonen or Michael Schumacher. It’s Romain Grosjean. Yes, he is behind team mate Raikkonen in the standings, but that is mainly down to bad luck.