If Jenson Button could win the F1 Drivers' World Championship under the expert guidance and leadership of Ross Brawn in 2009, then Michael Schumacher can similarly do so in 2010, argues Eddie Irvine - as the Irishman predicted 'an amazing season' in prospect as the king of yesteryear returns to take on today's pretenders to his throne.

Following a three-year absence since hanging up his helmet at the end of his 16th season in the top flight in 2006 - before he was truly ready, as it has now become apparent - Schumacher will rejoin the grid this year with Mercedes Grand Prix, in what is being billed as one of the greatest sporting comebacks in history.

The sceptics say that at 41 when the Bahrain Grand Prix gets the campaign into gear in mid-March, the German cannot possibly be as fit as rivals like Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel closer to half his age - particularly following the recurring neck injury that prevented him from returning to substitute former Ferrari team-mate Felipe Massa last summer in the wake of the Brazilian's terrifying, high-speed Hungaroring accident that very nearly left the Paulista blinded in one eye.

Those same disbelievers claim that Schumacher has simply been out for too long and that Hamilton, Vettel, Fernando Alonso et al are now simply too good for the most successful driver in F1 history to just breeze back in and reclaim the crown to which he has already laid claim on no fewer than seven occasions.

However, Irvine, who knows the Kerpen native better than most having partnered him at Maranello between 1996 and 1999 - being outscored by 267 points to 156 over that period, despite Schumacher missing six races with a broken leg - insists that such convictions are severely misplaced.

"I think he was bored," the Ulsterman opined in an interview with ESPN, reasoning that the 91-time grand prix-winner was always likely to come back at some stage, as the competitive fire inside him never genuinely went out. "When he was going to the races with Ferrari he was probably thinking 'what the hell am I doing here?' There was no point in him going to the race as an advisor because he didn't know enough of that side of the business, so he really didn't have a proper job and was just turning up as a poster boy.

"He would have come back with Ferrari (in-place of Massa), but he definitely had a bad problem with his neck. I was playing poker with him in Milan, and he had to turn his shoulders to look left or right to talk to people - but he's obviously hired the best physios and time has healed the problem.

"Fitness won't be an issue. Look at Nigel Mansell, who was a big fat blob and he won the world championship in 1992 aged 39. Michael is fast enough to win races again, and there is absolutely no comparison between Michael and Jenson Button in terms of ability. Jenson won the world title last year, so Michael can win it this year in the right car - and even if he doesn't have a competitive car, I don't think Michael will get disheartened. He just loves to race and is a very hard-working, patient guy who won't get upset if things don't happen overnight.

"Everything fell into Brawn's lap in 2009, but 2010 is going to be tougher. Ross is no mug, and with Mercedes behind him they will get it right. Michael went to Ferrari when they were in a far worse position than Brawn was in 2009 and managed to turn things around for them."

Indeed, all seven of Schumacher's record-breaking tally of titles at the highest level were achieved working in tandem with Brawn - firstly at Benetton and subsequently Ferrari - and the reunion of the Anglo-German 'dream team' has certainly given some food for thought to the rest of the paddock's inhabitants. Not least, contends Irvine, to Nico Rosberg, who will race alongside 'Schumi' at Mercedes in 2010.

"Michael won't walk in there and expect to be number one to Nico," assured the 44-year-old. "The fastest guy will be the number one, and that's always been the case wherever Michael has been. If Nico goes quicker than him, then he can expect to be team leader - but I don't expect that to happen.

"When I was at Ferrari with Michael, I did the majority of the testing, the tyre work and the chassis work - but Michael could just get in the car and go fast immediately. He was quicker than me, so he was the number one. When I was close to winning the title in 1999, Michael came back after his broken leg and proved he wasn't just the best number one but also the best number two in Malaysia, when he let me past for the race win.

"As for Lewis against Michael, Lewis isn't going to give an inch and it will be fascinating to see what happens. It's certainly going to be an amazing season!"

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