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Champions collide

With four world champions – including Michael Schumacher – competing in F1 this season, Ed Hawkins forecasts a cracking season

Never write off the Germans. It is a maxim that has served sports-betting punters well down the years and those who ignored it once, rarely do so twice. So when 41-year-old Michael Schumacher returns to Formula 1 this season after a three-year hiatus for what would appear to be an audacious bid for glory, what do we do? We look up his odds. At 5-1 the greatest driver there has ever been has to be considered worth a punt and although swimming against the emotional tide of another Schumacher drivers’ championship gong may be the call of the reservist, to be taken along for a ride by the force of a Teutonic wave could be mighty good fun.

Fun is not exactly a word associated with Germans, certainly not Schumacher, a man you can set your watch by, so it is a measure of the crevasse F1 finds itself in that a man who was judged for being robotic, arrogant and surgically removing the random element from sport with five consecutive titles at the start of 2000, is seen as a saviour.

If F1 has not been crippled by financial woes – Honda, Toyota and BMW have cried off home with broken bank accounts – then teams and administrators have been striking each other across the knees with wrenches. The 2009 season must surely be one of the most forgettable. Admittedly Jenson Button’s victory in a car aptly named Brawn was the sort of turn-up that cheers the pin pickers but the rows over rule changes, budget caps, a breakaway movement and, of course, the race fixing controversy sullied the sport’s name.

One such rule that caused constructors to get their fuel hose in a twist was the eminently sensible decision to award the world drivers’ championship on the basis of most races won. Unseasoned F1 watchers may be incredulous at the thought of anything else but it was not always that way. The switch is a great help to bettors to find a pole position.

If 2009 was the year that made things simpler in that regard, then 2010, hopefully, will take the sport out of the hands of the engineers and into those of the drivers. Another fillip for us. “It’s all about the car”, was a criticism levelled at F1 and Button’s triumph was the argument’s dénouement. This time around we are hoping for a pure driving battle.

Refuelling stops have been banned which will mean drivers will have to be as quick in the brain as they are around the circuit. Drivers will, at times, have to conserve fuel meaning they may have to slow down and use their wits to keep others from passing. Who does this favour? Schumacher. Only he and Rubens Barrichello are still around from 1993, the last non-refuelling season.

Away from the small print of the rules and regulations, F1 has reason to be cheerful. The Schumacher story aside, the ‘British dream team’ of Lewis Hamilton and Button at McLaren is a marketer’s dream while the feud between Hamilton and Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso continues to bubble nicely. Only recently Hamilton reminded everyone that during their bitter battle in 2007, he “blew away” the Spaniard. This year F1 has a traditional plot line for great sporting theatre; superstars, a returning champ, nationalistic fervour and a grudge match. To get down to the nitty gritty then, we must find a name who will take top billing. Schumacher, as mentioned earlier, looks riskily big given reputation and record, Hamilton is the 11/4 favourite, rival Alonso is next best at 4/1, Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel is 13/2 and Button is as big as 14/1.

Many will try to rule out a wager on Schumacher because of his age, fitness and time away from the sport. There are precedents, however which make each such arguments look thin.

Schumacher is not the first former champion to return. Nikki Lauda (1982), Alan Jones (1986), Alain Prost (1993), Nigel Mansell (1995) and Jacques Villeneuve (2005). Lauda would not go quietly and won the title three years later by half a point and Prost eased to his fourth in a superior Williams. Jones, Mansell and Villeneuve all failed for a variety of traits that are anathema to Schumacher. Jones’ heart wasn’t in it, Mansell was overweight (it was rumoured his backside wouldn’t fit in the McLaren) while Villeneuve just wasn’t (or should that be isn’t, given he could comeback with the US F1 team) very good. Certainly Schumacher is more Prost than Mansell at respective stages. The German will need time to adjust to the rigours of F1 once again but it would be a surprise if it took more than two races. Don’t forget that this is a man who has won seven world championships and, according to the F1 website, is “statistically the greatest driver the sport has ever seen”.

Stats are our bedfellows to snuggle up to when we feel a little insecure so wrap your arms around that. Here are some more to give you a warm fuzzy feeling. With a win percentage rate of 37 percent, Schumacher is the fifth best ever. Hamilton is 11th with 22 percent and Alonso 17th with 17 percent. The average grid positions show the gulf too: Schumacher 3.7, Hamilton 5.2 and Alonso 7.7. Schumacher is 11/10 for three or more race wins with Bet365. The only man that can match Schumacher for intensity is probably Hamilton, winner in 2008 a year after his debut season. Hamilton has the driving ability but does he have the mental toughness? Last year he came unstuck in a disappointing McLaren and Hamilton allowed his frustrations to get the better of him, coming to a head when he and his team were less than honest about the passing of Jarno Trulli in the Australian Grand Prix.

Only last month (January) it was announced that he split from his Pussycat Doll girlfriend and one wonders whether that is a good or bad thing. If taking most second-half points last term is a clue as to how he recovers from a blow, then his backers should not be concerned. What will not faze Hamilton is having the world champion alongside in a team that is rumoured to have produced a quicker car in the tunnel than last time. As sporting ‘rivalries’ go, the Hamilton-Button axis is about as irrelevant as Manchester United claiming derby tension with Macclesfield. The two drivers are at different ends of the spectrum.

Hamilton is 2/5 with Skybet in a season match bet against Button and although it is the kind of price that one would need deep pockets to enjoy, the firm may well find themselves filled in. Mostly by former F1 driver Eddie Irvine, it would seem.

“Jenson has entered the lion’s den,” said Irvine. “It was madness of him to move [from Brawn]. He thinks he’s going to be able to eat his steak, and that’s not going to be the case – I think he’s going to get murdered. It’s the worst decision he could have made.” It is impossible not to agree with Irvine. Barrichello, in the second-half of last season, outdrove Button to continue a trend of the Brit being putting in the shade by his stable companion. Ralf Schumacher and Giancarlo Fisichella beat him previously. Fears that Hamilton and Button will not get on do not add up because animosity can only grow from one man threatening the other. That was the spark for Hamilton’s problems with Alonso, although it must be said that the Spaniard could start a fight in an empty garage.

Such wise old sages as Martin Brundle expect Alonso to be “awesome” at Ferrari, a natural home for a thoroughbred driver. He should cope well with the refuelling ban and in races where conditions are tough – wet or track obstacles – Alonso’s class often tells. That is what could make him a value wager for most podiums, provided we get around 6/1 when prices are chalked up. He managed only one podium finish last season but the two-time champ is better than that and with racecraft key we should be able to take advantage of inflated odds after the Williams car let him down. Alonso would have been let down by Ferrari had he been driving for them too, but the Italians should get their house in order.

Alonso appears happy with his move, claiming Ferrari is “like a family”. What he probably means is that Ferrari are indulging his ego, which is the smart way to deal with a driver often described as sulky and truculent. Alonso is not a team man and if Ferrari give him what he demands then he could give what all Italy demands.

Elsewhere, the Red Bull team should be respected. Second to Brawn in the constructors’ standings by 18.5 points, they have, if you’ll forgive the easy line, sprouted wings. Their top man is Vettel, a class act who enjoyed memorable wins in Shanghai, Silverstone, Suzuka and Abu Dhabi. The 13/2 appeals. But so does something else. He’s German.
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