WORDS BY ROB HANSFORD | IMAGES BY HAAS
Pressure is a curious thing. Some drivers thrive on it, and for others it completely throws them off their game, causing them to make mistakes they wouldn’t otherwise make.
But as soon as those mistakes begin to creep in, it creates a whole new dimension. It affects morale, it affects confidence which can snowball, causing the driver to make additional errors and finding themselves performing well below their natural talent.
It’s happened to plenty of individuals over the years. Some bounce back from it, others lose their career over it. Either way it’s an uncomfortable position, and it’s a hole that Mick Schumacher is starting to slide into.
Last season was always going to be tough for Schumacher, making his Formula 1 debut in a car that was way off the pace, but nonetheless, he impressed, having consistently out-performed his team-mate Nikita Mazepin.
But this year, it’s been different on multiple fronts, with Haas producing a solid car, and Kevin Magnussen re-joining the team.
All of a sudden, the team’s prospects transformed. Magnussen was quick out of the box, scoring points in three out of the first four races, while managing to get the car into Q3 on occasion, and even now that its competitiveness has fallen away slightly, the car is still capable of fighting on the fringes of the top 10.
But while there’s plenty of positives for Haas to take from the season so far, arguably the thorn in its side has been Schumacher.
He’s gone from team leader, to the outright number two in a matter of months, and he’s still yet to score a single point. And to compound matters further, he’s had several big crashes, which has quickly depleted Haas’ budget, something that’s obviously not gone down well with his bosses.
Schumacher’s crash in Monaco only compounded things further, and issues like this only harms his confidence even more.
It’s something that Haas team principal, Guenther Steiner is acutely aware of, but while he accepts that it’s tough to remedy, the team still can’t afford for Schumacher to have any other sizeable incidents.
“He needs to come back, to gain that confidence back somehow, but it's difficult, you know?” Steiner explained. “But he will make it.
“Budget-wise, obviously, it's a big hit. But it's not only the budget, it's also the production of the parts. We cannot keep up with it.
“You’ve got one set or two sets of moulds, and you cannot make more, and in a moment we go through parts, there is no tomorrow, because the races are so close together, to each other.
“So, it's very difficult to keep up and obviously costs a lot of money as well.”
Schumacher is also aware of the potential trap he’s falling into, but naturally he is trying to keep a more positive outlook on the situation.
“I mean, you know, it's no secret, and we all want to score points and that's what we're what we're here for,” said Schumacher. “And what we want is to do better than previous races.
“Not saying that the races weren't good, but, you know, there was always something which just didn't quite work out. So I think that we are in a good way.”
It’s all well and good trying to remain positive. You need to if you’re going to achieve any success, but there were clear signs in Baku that his confidence has been knocked.
There’s two ways of looking at Schumacher’s performance in Baku. The first is that he’s feeling so under pressure that he has lost his competitiveness.
In Baku, he qualified last, a full 1.1seconds off Magnussen. In the race, he was rooted to the back of the field, crossing the line in 14th, with only the Williams of Nicholas Latifi behind him on track, who had received 15 seconds worth of penalties in the race.
That’s not how anyone wants to go racing, especially when the car is capable of better things.
It had all the remnants of a driver who’s morale has hit an all-time low, and who’s performances were being affected massively as a result.
This wasn’t Schumacher’s normal approach to a race weekend. Of course, over the course of the year so far, he’s not been able to match Magnussen’s pace, but he’s never been this far off.
It was if he was lost at sea without a paddle, unable to make the car do the things that he wanted.
But on the other hand, being another street circuit, with limited run-off and knowing that another big crash would almost certainly bring his time at Haas even further into question, was it a case of making sure he had a clean weekend, so he has a platform to build from?
It’s an approach that AlphaTauri took with Yuki Tsunoda last year, and has started to pay dividends, so it’s not outside the realms of possibility that this is how Schumacher is beginning to play things.
But whatever the case might be, Schumacher can’t afford for his performance dip to last long. Haas needs a driver pairing capable of scrounging points when they go begging.
Magnussen can do it, but questions still remain about the young German.
Canada will be a hard race to judge what’s really going on, given it will be a new circuit for Schumacher, with the venue not being on the F1 calendar for a number of years now, due to covid. But the British Grand Prix will be the perfect acid test.
It’s a flowing circuit with plenty of run-off, it’s a track Schumacher knows, and his first grand prix experience went as well as it could have given Haas’ limitations last year.
If he can perform well over the next two races, especially at Silverstone, he will release the pressure and set himself up for a strong second half of the year.
But if he finds the barriers, or remains well off the pace, then serious question marks over Schumacher’s F1 career longevity will begin to cloud over even more.
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