He may not have been installed as immediate favourite for next season's Formula One world championship title, or even been tipped by the sport's commercial ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone, but many believe that Michael Schumacher could be helped towards a record eighth crown following his comeback with Mercedes GP.

Betting sources currently have 2008 champion Lewis Hamilton - who is relishing the chance to finally race against his hero - as the early tip for the 2010 title, with the likes of Fernando Alonso as his closest rival, as McLaren and Ferrari return to form after disappointing campaigns. However, Schumacher is slowly being listed among the top five candidates, alongside reigning champion Jenson Button and 2009 contender Sebastian Vettel. The soon-to-be 41-year old German's title odds hover at around 13/2 with most bookmakers, with a 92nd grand prix to be found at 6/4, while Hamilton rests at 5/2 for the crown.

Ecclestone, meanwhile, admits that it may be possible for Schumacher to win the title next year, particularly if the rebranded Mercedes team can repeat what predecessor Brawn achieved in 2009, but will be putting his money elsewhere - and not on countryman Hamilton, either.

"Of course, it's possible that Schumacher can be champion," he recently told Germany's Bild, "but this is also true for five other drivers. Ultimately, it depends on who has the best car, [but] there are a few. Hamilton, Alonso [will be in there], but I predict that Sebastian Vettel will be the next world champion."

Despite - or perhaps because - of the fact that he is not being tipped as favourite for the title, Schumacher's return is being viewed with some cynicism, with many believing that it would be good publicity for F1 if the German veteran was involved in the title fight, no matter what it took for him to be there.

"There's going to be a lot of interested viewers watching the sport for that one, because the suspicion was always that Michael got a little bit of favouritism from the FIA," 1996 world champion, and now BRDC president, Damon Hill admitted to the BBC, "I think the FIA are going to have to be on their toes to make sure that there is no suspicion of that in the coming season."

The governing body is, of course, now headed by Schumacher's former Ferrari boss Jean Todt, but the diminutive Frenchman - no doubt swayed by his reputation for being more than a little blinkered when it came to matters at Maranello - insists that there will be no leaning towards the man he once described as being 'like a son'.

"He is part of my family, but it would be inappropriate for me to discuss his decisions," Todt told French newspaper Le Figaro in a recent interview, "I'll leave it to him to comment."