SAKHIR, Bahrain -- As debut tests go, they don't get more high-profile than Mick Schumacher's in Bahrain on Tuesday. Most drivers on the fringe of Formula One make their debut with a midfield or backmarker team; they get a chance to acclimatise to the level of engineering, the sheer speed of the car and the glare of the media without the burden of expectation. But not the son of seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher.
Regardless of which car he drove on Tuesday, he was going to attract attention. Everything, right down to the look in his eyes through his open visor, would be scanned for traces of his legendary father. His times would be analysed regardless of the data available and photos of any mistakes would spread across the internet within minutes of being taken. So why not do it in style with the biggest team on the grid? Why not drive for the team that your name will always be synonymous with? Why not make your debut with Ferrari?
"The emotions I can tell you were really nice," he said on Tuesday evening after an hour debriefing with the team. "It was feeling like home already, it was beautiful to make those first laps and to see all those guys working on the car and working with me. I felt very comfortable and felt at home."
Although it was only a test, there was no denying the emotional attachment between team and driver. Some of the mechanics present in the Ferrari garage had worked on his father's car back in the 2000s and his PR officer, Sabine Kehm, had worked with Michael throughout the height of his fame. Even a former Ferrari engineer who now works for Mercedes stood on the pit wall and applauded Schumacher as he rolled out of the garage for the first time.
Schumacher's mother, Corinna, watched her boy's early progress through a gap in the catch fencing. The emotions are impossible to comprehend. Just five years ago the family experienced tragedy when Michael suffered serious head injuries during a skiing holiday in the French Alps. Now their son was on an F1 track following in his wheel tracks.
Fernando Alonso, who returned to McLaren for a tyre test on Tuesday and went head-to-head with Michael for the title in 2006, couldn't help but smile when he was asked about sharing a test session with a Schumacher once more.
"I didn't meet him on-track today, but it was nice to see on the screen this morning 'M. Schumacher' and 'Alonso', they were together at the beginning," he said. "If it was Michael or Mick, you'd never know if you saw the first moment."
So with all the attention and all the pressure of his first test, was Schumacher still able to concentrate on the job at hand?
"Easy!" came the one-word answer, a smile spreading across his face. The confidence and composure is definitely there.
Rain delays and soft tyres
Schumacher's morning run plan consisted of 33 laps of acclimatisation before a freak rain storm stopped running for all ten teams. No one had expected rain in the desert, and as a result none of the teams had ordered wet or intermediate tyres from Pirelli. The hours ticked away between downpours, keeping the circuit damp until the final 90 minutes of the session when the setting sun broke through hazy clouds.
Schumacher returned to the track with damp patches still present on the kerbs and at the apex of Turn 2. The plan was to complete tyre and setup work, with Schumacher given a set of Pirelli's softest tyres to attack the track. His benchmark time from the pre-rainstorm running was a 1:32.552 and he quickly found over two seconds in lap time to get himself in the low 1:30s. But in his first run in an F1 car, he was still allowing some margin for error.
"I always say that there has to be respect [for the car]," he said. "If you lose respect, you get into danger. Obviously I had a huge amount of respect for the car. It's more than 1,000 brake horsepower and it goes quickly around the corners! No, there was respect for sure."
The biggest eye-opener for any driver making their debut in F1 is the braking. The step up from Formula 2, which Schumacher currently races in, is huge. All of a sudden you are arriving at corners at higher speeds, but the braking distances have been slashed. Given just 56 laps it was impossible to find the limit.
"Braking was very... it was really hard to find the limit, the limit just got further and further into the corner," he said. "I was feeling like I could have braked at the 50 metre board at Turn 1, but obviously that's not possible. I was trying every run to go later and later, and it always went later still. That's why I say there is still margin."
With 15 minutes remaining, Schumacher had dipped down to a 1:29.976 and his name sat at the top of the timesheets. Most of the other drivers were focusing on long runs with heavy fuel, but Max Verstappen also appeared to be chasing lap time in the Red Bull. The two sons of former F1 drivers holidayed together as kids and now they were going head-to-head in an official F1 test session.
Verstappen -- one year Schumacher's senior and already a five-time race winner -- was on a used set of tyres two steps harder, but with the huge benefit of over four years of experience in F1 machinery. With five minutes remaining on the clock, Verstappen hooked up a quick lap and eclipsed Schumacher's best effort by 0.597s.
"Obviously Max has a lot of experience," Schumacher said. "Comparing to him, I think we can be very happy. We did our job, and at the end I was very happy about how I felt in the car and how confident I was."
Put back in the correct context, the lap times and the run plan didn't really matter. This was Schumacher's first drive in an F1 car and the fact he was able to push and make no obvious errors counted as a success. In an even wider context it was the next step on a long journey that started over ten years ago in karting and has yet to set its final destination.
"I came here to have fun and to enjoy it and I did that 110%," Schumacher said. "I guess you can see that I am smiling a lot and I enjoyed a lot, especially those last laps. With full power and everything it was just amazing, a complete feeling in the car, it was just amazing."