Relishing Schumacher's return
When Lewis Hamilton made his Formula 1 debut in March 2007, he said his one regret was that he had never got to race against Michael Schumacher. Now, in remarkable circumstances, he will get his wish.
The world champion, though, will not be the only one licking his lips at the prospect of the most successful man in F1 history making a comeback as a temporary replacement for the injured Ferrari driver Felipe Massa. Suddenly the prospect of the unloved European Grand Prix at Valencia looks a whole lot more appealing.
For Ferrari, it was a no-brainer to ask Schumacher to come out of retirement as a stand-in for Massa, who suffered a fractured skull when he was hit on the helmet by a spring from Rubens Barrichello's Brawn while travelling at more than 160mph during qualifying for last weekend's Hungarian race.
At a time when F1 grids are incredibly closely matched and Ferrari do not have a particularly competitive car, their test drivers Marc Gene and Luca Badoer offered the same underwhelming prospect - a midfield grid position and anonymous race to, perhaps, a point or two.
Set that against the idea of thrilling F1 fans the world over, and garnering acres of coverage, by putting a seven-time world champion in the car and sitting back to see how a legend, at the age of 40, stacks up against the new generation.
Even Schumacher's spokeswoman, Sabine Kehm, mentioned his age when BBC Sport broke the story on Tuesday that he would consider a return. But this will almost certainly not be a major issue.
The cars are no more physical now than when Nigel Mansell won the world championship shortly after turning 39 in 1992. Alain Prost was 38 when he won the fourth title of his illustrious career the following season.
Schumacher has kept himself fit and, although he is not able to test between now and getting into the car for the first time for Friday practice on 21 August in Valencia, he will spend long hours in Ferrari's simulator - and yet more in the gym.
Commitment and desire are more of an issue for a competitor of Schumacher's age. It is not skill that wanes in F1 drivers as they grow older, rather that they begin to question why they are repeatedly putting their lives on the line for the same - or even diminishing - ends.
But Schumacher is not a man who makes these sorts of decisions lightly, and he will have taken a long, hard look inside himself before making this one.
Some have suggested that he is risking his reputation by stepping back into the cockpit after nearly three years away. But I don't see it that way. Whatever happens in these next few months, nothing can detract from what Schumacher achieved in his career.
Did anyone think less of Lance Armstrong when he could manage 'only' third place on his return to the Tour de France this month? To dive back into arguably the world's toughest sporting event a couple of months short of his 38th birthday, four years after the last of his seven wins, and go toe-to-toe with the very best only enhanced the reputation of a true legend of the sport.
So it will be with Schumacher. He knows the stakes. He will have no illusions about what he is up against.
By the time he retired in 2006, the German's position as F1's pre-eminent driver was being challenged by Fernando Alonso - and Schumacher will not have forgotten the moments that encapsulated the passing of the mantle, such as the Spaniard's incredibly courageous, quite brilliant overtaking manoeuvre around the outside of him at more than 200mph at Suzuka's daunting 130R corner in Japan in 2005.
First and foremost, though, Schumacher has to confront Kimi Raikkonen, the man who took his place at Ferrari and who is now his team-mate.
The Finn won the world championship in his first season with the Italian team in 2007, but he has looked half asleep through most of 2008 and 2009. Schumacher's arrival, though, will be like an electric shock to him - the biggest wake-up call he has ever experienced.
For all his laid-back demeanour, Raikkonen will be out to prove a point in these remaining races of 2009. And, like Schumacher, he, too, knows the stakes.
Although it has not been officially confirmed, and although Alonso (sort of) denies it, it is an open secret in F1 that the Spaniard will be driving one of the Ferraris next season. The only question is who will be in the other car - a tricky dilemma given that both Raikkonen and Massa are under contract until the end of 2010.
The word in the F1 paddock is that Ferrari have told the other teams Raikkonen is available, but he is having trouble finding somewhere that a) can take him and b) he wants to go. But if he can consistently beat Schumacher Raikkonen might find that he saves his job, leaving Massa - assuming he is able to return to full fitness and wants to get back into an F1 car - looking for a new home.
Such considerations only add spice to the most eagerly anticipated comeback in F1 since Niki Lauda's in 1982.
When the Austrian was tempted back by Marlboro and McLaren after two years running his airline, there were those who doubted his motivation and wondered whether he could be competitive. So it is with Schumacher.
But those who question Schumacher's decision might do well to remember a little vignette that took place last Thursday in the media conference room at the Hungaroring.
"We knew that maybe Michael (Schumacher) was coming," said Kubica, one of the most highly rated drivers in F1, "so we asked some drivers and they joined us. We had good fun, a good day's driving. Also a bit of competition because once you have drivers - even if it is not an F1 track, but karting - there is always competition. There is always someone who wants to be the fastest but overall I think it was good fun."
So who was fastest, Robert, someone asked.
"Michael was the fastest," he said.
This has been far from Ferrari's most competitive season. But Raikkonen finished second in Hungary last weekend. I, for one, would not bet against Schumacher winning a race before the season is out.