The hype and build-up to this coming season has been more frantic than any other year, and for good reason. We have two British world champions paired in a top team, two-times champion Fernando Alonso in a prancing horse, the return of the Canadian Grand Prix and the introduction of a race in South Korea. Added to that is the prospect of two/three/four (delete as applicable) additional teams arriving on the starting grid.
All of these, however, are eclipsed by the return of one man: Michael Schumacher.
Some say that he is arrogant to a fault; some say that he made Formula 1 boring during his period of dominance, and the truly ignorant know him only as the Stig off Top Gear. But whatever your views about the man, Schumacher is, statistically at least, the greatest Formula 1 driver of all time. And now, after three seasons in retirement, he is returning.
To glimpse what the German's return means to the Formula 1 fans, media, the current drivers, and even the man himself, just look back to the end of July, and the aftermath of the Hungarian Grand Prix. After the scare of Felipe Massa's accident in qualifying, and the worrying news which came out of the hospital in Budapest that afternoon about the Brazilian's fractured skull, the mood turned to one of excitement – once we'd learned that Massa should make a full recovery – as a rumour emerged that the legend Schumacher was returning to the sport.
By the Wednesday after Hungary the shock announcement was made: Schumacher would return as a 'favour' to Ferrari. The great and good of Formula 1 past and present were giving their opinions on how the seven-time world champion would do, some voicing concern that he was too old, out of practice, and taking a big risk.
Fans, even those who disliked Schumacher, would admit they were intrigued at seeing him take on the young talent like Hamilton and Vettel.
Of course, the comeback never happened. Schumacher had suffered a bike accident in February 2009, and testing in a 2007 car aggravated the resulting neck injury. Almost tearful in a press conference, Michael had to announce to the world that the much awaited comeback was not going to happen. “I am disappointed to the core,” he said. “I am awfully sorry for the guys of Ferrari and for all the fans which crossed fingers for me.”
Luca Badoer managed two almost comical races as Massa's replacement before the team replaced him with Giancarlo Fisichella.
At the end of the season, Mercedes took over championship winning team Brawn GP, and soon afterwards Jenson Button left for McLaren. This seemed a strange decision on the part of both driver and team, as Mercedes' other driver Nico Rosberg was hardly a proven world beater.
Around this time rumours of a Schumacher return resurfaced. Eddie Jordan, BBC pundit and former team owner was telling anyone who would listen that Schumacher would be racing for Mercedes in 2010, a claim rubbished by virtually everybody. Even Sabine Kehm, Schumacher's spokeswoman, said at the time that a return was “highly unlikely – but never say never”.
The chance of working with Ross Brawn again, and driving for Mercedes, his childhood sponsor, was far too big a temptation for Schumacher to refuse. On 23rd December last year Formula 1 fans got one of the best Christmas presents they could wish for: The neck was healed, and Schumacher had signed a three-year deal to drive the silver arrows. In a BBC interview the German said he was 'recharged' after his three-year break from the sport, and relishes the challenge ahead.
Many 'experts' cast doubts over Schumacher's ability to compete with the best at the age of 41, but Ross Brawn obviously has faith in the driver that he masterminded to seven-world championships.
The German has also been working on his fitness, and is said to be in a better shape than he was before he retired.
Michael's experience may even put him at a slight advantage over his rivals – he is the only driver on the grid to have won a world championship during the previous era without refuelling.
Winter testing has also indicated that Schumacher hasn't lost his sharpness. Although we can't draw too much information from the lap times, he clearly has the measure of his younger teammate Nico Rosberg. The performance of the Mercedes may not be sufficient to give him a race win in Bahrain, but Schumacher will surely win races this season.
Ferrari was the team which brought Schumacher much of his success, but Mercedes were actually the company responsible for his debut in Formula 1. The German car-maker funded Michael's first race at Jordan in 1991, and Eddie Jordan later admitted that if they hadn't, he would have given Schumacher's race seat to a driver with deeper pockets.
In his debut grand prix Schumacher qualified seventh at Spa, although he retired from the race with mechanical problems. Benetton snapped him up after the race and the first of his 91 wins came the following year, again at Spa. The first two championships followed in 1994 and 1995.
Schumacher then went to the struggling Ferrari team in 1996. Along with Ross Brawn, Rory Byrne and Jean Todt, he is credited with transforming the Italian team into the most successful team of all time.
Schumacher's first season with Ferari was disappointing; with only one race victory, spectacular though the wet race win in Barcelona was. However, in 1997 and 1998 he was a contender right up to the final race, eventually losing out to Jacque Villeneuve and then Mika Hakkinen.
In 1999 Schumacher missed six races after breaking his leg at Silverstone.
In the next five seasons, Schumacher was unstoppable, winning the championship every year.
In 2002 he was particularly dominant, finishing on the podium in every race, winning 11 of them. He beat teammate Barrichello to the title by 67 points, and had the championship in the bag with six races still to go.
In 2004 he won 12 of the first thirteen races, and beat his own record for wins in a season, by claiming 13 race victories.
It was a mark of Ferrari and Schumacher's dominance at this time that the FIA saw fit to change the regulations in order to make the racing more competitive, which included a ban on tyre changing. This contributed to a difficult 2005, with Schumacher winning only one race, the farcical US Grand Prix which the Michelin runners boycotted.
The following year, and final before his retirement, Schumacher fought Alonso all the way to the final race. In the last race of the season at Interlagos he suffered a puncture on Lap 3, leaving him in nineteenth place, and 70 seconds off the leader. In a remarkable swansong, Schumacher fought his way right up to fourth place, a reminder to the F1 community what they would be missing out on in the coming years.
At this point Schumacher had seemingly finished his career, as the most successful driver to ever participate in the sport. He holds many records, including highest number of championships (7, Fangio nearest with 5), most race victories (91, Prost second with 51), most fastest laps, (76, Prost second with 41), most pole positions (68, Senna second with 65), most points scored and most points finishes (1369 points, Prost second with 798.5; 190 points finishes, Prost second with 128), and most races won during a single season (13 in 2004, second place Schumacher again with 11 in 2002).
Despite this Schumacher is not as highly regarded as his success would perhaps warrant. Many fans will look back over the controversies in his career, and claim that he is either a cheat, plain unsportsmanlike, or just far too competitive.
In Adelaide, the final race of the 1994 season, Schumacher was ahead of Damon Hill in the championship by just one point. On lap 36 he took out his Hill, neither driver scored points, and Schumacher took the title, very controversially. The German claimed it was an accident.
Schumacher attempted the same manoeuvre in 1997, but missed his title rival Jacques Villeneuve. This time the authorities intervened, disqualifying him from the driver's championship that year. The German accepted his punishment, admitting to his mistake.
Schumacher has also been renowned for insisting on number one status within the team, with his teammate forced to play a supporting role. Eddie Irvine cited this as one of his reasons for leaving Ferrari, and Rubens Barrichello spoke out about the same thing when he moved on to Honda.
The dominant position of Schumacher became clear during the Austrian Grand Prix in 2002. Schumacher was in control of the championship even at this early stage, but Barrichello had the upper hand on him that weekend, and was on course to win his first grand prix. However, just inches from the line, Ferrari came over the radio to Barrichello, telling him to move over for his teammate. The reaction of the Austrian fans was staggering – boos were heard all around the A1 ring.
Controversy followed the German right into his final season. During qualifying for what everybody thought was his last Monaco weekend, Schumacher was top of the timesheets in the closing stages of Q3. However, championship rival Fernando Alonso was on a quick lap. To guarantee himself pole on the notoriously narrow street circuit, Schumacher 'parked' his car at La Rascasse corner, blocking the track.
The FIA took a dim view of this, relegating Schumacher to the back of the grid. In a blinding race, Schumacher managed to finish fifth, despite it being 'impossible' to overtake around the streets of Monte Carlo. Pundits praised the driver for his skill, but couldn't help wondering where he would have finished if he'd let Alonso finish his lap and qualify second.
This look through Schumacher's colourful first stint in Formula 1 reminds us that, even if he wasn't a model sportsman, he was still an interesting character to have around the paddock.
Who knows how long this comeback will last?
Some say it will only be one year, until Mercedes can nab Sebastian Vettel from Red Bull, although Schumacher claims he'll be there for three years.
One thing you can be sure of is that some of those records will be improved upon during the return, and it is going to be very entertaining to watch.