London: Watching Michael Schumacher racing for Mercedes at Hockenheim would have been just about as good as it gets for German Formula One fans when the seven times champion was in his prime.
Not any more. The 41-year-old, 11 races into his comeback season after three years out, will start his first home grand prix for Mercedes this weekend still searching for more than flickers of the old magic.
Schumacher won for Ferrari on his last appearance at Hockenheim in 2006, but has yet to get on the podium while fellow-German team mate Nico Rosberg has done so three times.
While Rosberg has yet to win a grand prix, Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel has triumphed twice this year and taken five pole positions. On a starting grid with six German drivers, he is now his country’s main man.
Once nicknamed ‘Baby Schumi’, Vettel grew up just half an hour down the road from the circuit and proved his pulling power at the weekend with a drive through his home town Heppenheim. According to Red Bull, more than 120,000 turned out.
There will be more pressure than ever on his shoulders, particularly after a controversial British Grand Prix that ended with Australian team mate Mark Webber winning the race after a favouritism row, but Vettel shrugged it off.
“I wouldn’t say I feel pressure from it (racing at home),” he said. “It adds an extra bit of motivation and then probably you find that extra tenth (of a second) going around the track.
“I went once with my father to see a free practice...in 1993 or 1994,” he added of his Hockenheim past. “I got goose bumps straight away. I have been there many times with my family, usually with a camper (van), and it was always a good experience.”
Schumacher, winner of 91 races and four times in the German Grand Prix, can also testify to that.
“No matter how long you are around, it is always something special to race in front of your home crowd,” he said, with the 6,500 tickets in the Mercedes grandstand sold out quicker than ever this year.
“There are very few areas on any race circuit worldwide comparable to the Motodrom, and as a driver you feel that energetic atmosphere when entering.”
Vettel’s main rival will be his team mate, whose third win of the year at Silverstone lifted him to third place overall behind McLaren’s champions Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button.
Webber won last year’s German Grand Prix at Nuerburgring and is in the form of his life, knowing that this season could be the best shot at the title he is going to get.
Hamilton, chasing his fifth successive podium, will be a major threat as will Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, his team still smarting from drawing a blank in Britain.
Hamilton won at Hockenheim in 2008 and the Briton should have an aerodynamic boost with McLaren getting to grips with the new ‘blown diffuser’ that teething problems forced them to ditch for Silverstone.
“I think Silverstone showed that we were in no mood to be complacent -- either in our aggressive push to put upgrades on the car or our decision to remove them and put our faith in an older iteration of the car,” said team boss Martin Whitmarsh.
“We’re looking at undertaking a major test program on Friday at Hockenheim,” he added. “And, if these prove positive, we’ll then look at the deployment of the new floor for the remainder of the race weekend.”