Michael Schumacher has sought to dampen speculation that he and Mercedes Grand Prix will be instant contenders for victory when the F1 2010 campaign officially gets into gear with the curtain-raising Bahrain Grand Prix at Sakhir in just over five weeks' time – but he did admit that as he prepares to make his competitive return to the fray, he is 'sleeping like a baby'.
Schumacher has now spent a day-and-a-half behind the wheel of his new Mercedes W01 around the Circuit Ricardo Tormo in Valencia, and on both Monday and Wednesday the record-breaking seven-time F1 World Champion lapped third-quickest of the drivers on-track – and seventh outright of the 15 competitors in attendance over all three days, almost half a second clear of younger compatriot and team-mate Nico Rosberg.
A hydraulic leak might have curtailed his Wednesday running by about an hour, but the German's bristling confidence and aura of optimism at the end of his first serious F1 test in some three-and-a-half years – not to mention the pace he displayed out on the circuit – will certainly have given his rivals some food for thought.
“I am indeed happy,” comeback king 'Schumi' told reporters in Valencia. “I had a good first day, a rather shortish run on Monday, but [on Wednesday] we had a full day. We had a little hydraulic leak that stopped us at the end, but all-in-all, very positive feedback. The car is running very smoothly and very nicely. I am looking very positively at the season.
“I am feeling quite good; [it was] actually much easier than I expected. I need a bit more time, but it went pretty well. The main focus point right now is to look at the reliability, to do as many laps as you can and not worry too much about the lap times. Yes, you look at them, but you need to focus on what is important.
“I am not going to say that [the W01 is a winner]. I am thinking we will be competitive, but whether this is going to be a winning car or not is another story. For me, that is not so important. It is a long season, and we need to be there [and] taking good points at the beginning. I wouldn't expect to be winning right from the beginning – that was not something that I was aiming for or expecting to be the case, but we need to be strong in [terms of] development.”
Admitting that he was pleased to see the strong pace of his previous long-time employer Ferrari, Schumacher predicted that with four world champions in the field in the shape of himself, Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso in 2010, the competition is even tougher than it was the last time that was true, back in 1999, 'due to the fact that you have very high quality drivers around in very competitive cars'.
Palpably revitalised by his return to what he does best, the 41-year-old added that far from being nervous about what lies ahead, he is calm, enjoying himself and 'sleeping like a baby' – as he prepares to do battle for what would be an extraordinary eighth drivers' world championship crown. Keeping a tight lid on his expectations he may claim to be, but for a 91-time grand prix-winner, every one of his rivals knows that Schumacher has only one goal.
“I feel [I've gone] backwards a long time,” he mused of the renewal of his working relationship with Mercedes team principal Ross Brawn, the man who helped to expertly engineer him to each of his F1 titles to-date at first Benetton and subsequently Ferrari. “I feel fresh and motivated. Knowing each other so well makes things very easy.
“I am always excited. You can imagine after three years of not doing anything, it is a new challenge and a new experience – a very different one, [with] a different team and a different environment. [There are] lots of interesting things that I am experiencing, but they are good fun. I've actually slept very well, even when engines were running and generators were running. I slept like a little baby.”