In what may go down as one of the greatest sporting comebacks, seven-time Formula One world champion Michael Schumacher announced Wednesday that he will return to racing after three years in retirement. Just 11 days shy of his 41st birthday he'll be the oldest driver on the F1 circuit when he comes back Schumacher said he's signed a three-year contract with Mercedes GP and that he'll return to the track for the opening race of the 2010 season in Bahrain on March 14. His will be the highest-profile return to F1 since Austrian Niki Lauda came out of a two-year retirement to race for McLaren in 1982. Lauda, who was 33 at the time, went on to win a third world title in 1984.
The German is set to reportedly earn just under $10 million the first year the full terms of the contract have not been disclosed and will be reunited with Mercedes team principal Ross Brawn, who masterminded all seven of his titles, the first two with Benetton in 1994 and 1995 and the subsequent five with Ferrari from 2000-2004. "The motivation is pretty straightforward," said Schumacher. "I got a call from Ross at the beginning of November asking me to race again, telling me Mercedes were going to be involved. I've never left the racetrack and after three years I regained the energy I'm feeling now. After playing around on motorbikes, I'm ready for the serious stuff."
And make no mistake: his fellow drivers will be taking his return seriously. Schumacher nearly made a comeback with Ferrari over the summer to fill in for the injured Brazilian Felipe Massa but pulled out because of a neck injury he now insists is not a problem. And he revealed to reporters that it was the request from Ferrari that fueled his desire to make a permanent return to the cockpit. "I really didn't feel like it was what I wanted when Ferrari asked me, but when I felt the responsibility, I thought I ought to do it," he says. "What Ferrari initiated has triggered what you see right now."
Schumacher will join fellow German Nico Rosberg on a Mercedes team that won both the drivers' and constructors' titles this year (in its former guise as Brawn). Rosberg could barely contain his delight at the news, saying, "It is fantastic Michael is returning to Formula One ... It's a great challenge for me to be up against one of the best drivers of all time." Brawn was also pleased with the announcement: "As seven-time world champion, Michael's outstanding record in Formula One speaks for itself and I am looking forward to working with him again." As for Schumacher's rivals, however, there will likely be "a spread of emotions, including fear, because you don't want to be beaten by the old guy," Chris Aylett, head of Britain's Motorsport Industry Association, tells TIME. "The most competitive guys will relish the opportunity of embarrassing the old champion," he adds. "But overall, they [the drivers] earn their income from the popularity of F1 and if this doesn't guarantee headlines, I don't know what will."
This may be an early Christmas present for F1 (and the media, of course), but some tough questions must be asked. First, will the 41-year-old be fit enough to compete against drivers half his age? And will Schumacher be able to adjust to the changes that have been made to the sport's rules since he last raced at the end of 2006? (For example, there are now limits to how many engines can be used, pit-lane speeds, starting weights and track testing.) Aylett believes Schumacher will do fine, saying he'll "come back in with fresh, if not a little older, eyes. The rule changes have led toward a driver-ability contest and there's no question his ability has been proven in the past." But Schumacher was always used to having one of the best cars on the circuit, so there may be some doubts as to whether his new ride will allow him to be as competitive as he was before.
Some experts also believe the fact that Jenson Button won the title for Brawn (now Mercedes) this year means the team may not be as good next year that the effort needed to win a championship takes it out of a team the following season, as McLaren and Ferrari have discovered. If Schumacher does experience difficulty on the track, there's always the chance he could resort to some of the questionable driving tactics he's been accused of in the past, such as colliding with other drivers, to try to win titles. Schumacher won't want to be remembered in 2010 for any unsavory incidents. "I think that the young guns are just as competitive today as he was when he was young," Aylett tells TIME. "And as always, they'll test the rule-makers to the extreme."
But until the season opens in Bahrain, Formula One fans will only have one thing on their minds the return of a legend to the sport and the prospect of seeing him on the podium again one day, spraying champagne with unbridled joy.