The last time we saw Michael Schumacher as a Formula One driver, his Ferrari was a blur of red diving inside the silver McLaren of Kimi Raikkonen as the two cars roared along the pit straight at Interlagos shortly before the finish of the 2006 Brazilian Gand Prix, the final round of the season. In the mind of the German, there was more than fourth place at stake as he swooped past the Finn who would be taking his seat at Maranello the following year. Schumacher was making a point.
There is not much doubt that he would like to have stayed at the Scuderia Ferrari for another year, but contracts had been signed and the company's president, Luca di Montezemolo, felt it was time to move on. Schumacher accepted the decision, along with a new consultancy deal that kept him tied to the team with which he had won five of his seven world championships, and where — but for the legacy of a neck injury suffered while racing motorbikes — he would have made his comeback last year in place of the stricken Felipe Massa.
In Bahrain this March he will race in his 250th Grand Prix, with the prospect of a possible three seasons to come at the wheel of a Mercedes-Benz. By that time he would be 44, still two years younger than Juan Manuel Fangio when the incomparable Argentinian won the last of his five titles.
His comeback, like that of Lance Armstrong to the Tour de France this summer, will redouble interest in a sport which has lost public esteem through a series of scandals in recent years. If he turns out, at 41, to have lost the edge that brought him seven world championships, that additional interest will be shortlived. But in his press conference announcing his return he sounded fully confident that he will be able to resume at his familiar level of competitiveness.
In his home gymnasium he has been working on his fitness. He never stopped training in his retirement, although with less intensity. But his weight is back to where it was, and he sees no reason why Formula One's physical demands should cause him problems. "I have no doubt on this," he said.
Like Armstrong, who also won his sport's biggest prize seven times and then took a four-year sabbatical, Schumacher will not return without provoking certain misgivings in the minds of those to whom it seems less than healthy for a forward-looking sport to welcome the return of a man carrying so much baggage along with his trophies.
This is a champion who secured his first title in 1994 by appearing to cause an accident with Damon Hill, who unquestionably tried to drive Jacques Villeneuve off the road to steal another in 1997, and who parked his car in the middle of the track during the final qualifying session at Monaco in his final season in order to prevent Fernando Alonso from setting a faster time.
Of earlier world champions, Nino Farina was occasionally a danger to his rivals and Ayrton Senna introduced Formula One to dodgem-style ethics, but there was a degree of cynical calculation about Schumacher's chicanery that many found repellent, and which leaves a permanent stain on his statistically unmatched record.
In his absence, too, we have seen the rise of Lewis Hamilton, the fulfilment of Jenson Button's promise and the arrival of Sebastian Vettel, most critics' bet as the next German world champion. Hamilton and Vettel, who were aged six and four respectively when Schumacher first raced a Formula One car, are likely to welcome the chance to match their skills and youthful confidence against a legendary figure. But some of the veterans might not be so thrilled, and the 24-year-old Nico Rosberg, who left Williams to sign for Mercedes before a hint of his compatriot's return had emerged, will now have to fight his way out of a giant's shadow.
The only available precedents for Schumacher's decision give no real clue to his prospects. Niki Lauda, having won the championship in 1975 and 1977, left Formula One at the end of 1979 to run his airline, returning with McLaren two years later when that venture hit trouble and picking up a third title in 1984.
Nigel Mansell, by contrast, quit after winning the championship with Williams in 1992 and made a brief four-race comeback with the same team after Senna's death in 1994, winning one GP, but then humiliated himself by attempting a full-scale return with McLaren the following year, only to find that he could not fit into the car.
What no one can doubt is the extent of Schumacher's commitment. Another similarity to Armstrong is his willingness do whatever it takes to make himself competitive with the new generation.
And it would be a hard heart that did not experience some sort of a thrill – the word he kept using today – at the thought of seeing him in a Silver Arrow. Even with a typical driver's limited knowledge of GP history, he will be acutely aware that Mercedes do not race to come second.