Michael Schumacher is insistent that he is still more than capable of fulfilling his stated pre-season F1 2010 goal by doing battle for an extraordinary eighth drivers' world championship crown on his return to top flight competition this year, despite his low-key return in the Bahrain curtain-raiser.
A distant sixth place – behind young Mercedes Grand Prix team-mate and compatriot Nico Rosberg – under the desert sun in Sakhir arguably revealed little of the dominant force Schumacher used to be prior to his 'retirement' three years ago, but the 41-year-old has revealed that he was happy with his performance following so long away from the cut-and-thrust of active competition at the highest level.
With paddock experts calling for the legendary 91-time grand prix-winner to be given time to re-find his feet and eventually rediscover his old form, conventional wisdom goes that only a fool would ever write off the chances of the man who is by some margin the most successful driver in F1 history – and 'Schumi' contends that with a long season ahead and many developments to be brought to his car, nothing is out of the question.
“My expectation was to fight for the championship, and I still think that this is possible,” the Kerpen native told The Daily Telegraph
. “Can we win the championship this year? That is a tough question. It is a long year and I have been in much worse circumstances at the beginning of the year and still taken the championship. You never stand still; it is always an ongoing process. I am not pessimistic at all – I know it is hard work and we will make a big effort. It is a great challenge and I feel excited.”
As to the immediate 'challenge' that lies ahead – that of bettering his Bahrain performance in Australia, where he has in the past triumphed on no fewer than four occasions – Schumacher is bullish about his prospects, after winding up fourth-quickest in FP2 in Melbourne this afternoon at the end of a day of disjointed wet/dry running during which the primary focus was on set-up and practice pit-stops.
“As often on Fridays, the performance is difficult to judge as everybody seemed to be on different programmes,” he reported afterwards. “Having said that, I am quite happy with today's sessions, even if we did not run too much overall. My first session was a bit handicapped by red flags [and] later we faced some rain in the second session, but all-in-all, we learned a lot and we could improve the set-up of our car quite reasonably. In the end our times were competitive, so I think we can look forward to the rest of the weekend.”
Rosberg, for his part, professed himself less satisfied with the way the day panned out, after lapping a strong second-quickest in FP1 at the scene of his first podium finish in F1 two years ago, only to slip away to the foot of the top ten later on, half a second adrift of the sister Silver Arrow – meaning the 24-year-old gave best to the old master on a grand prix weekend for the first time this year.
“The first session was okay this morning and we learnt some good things,” the ex-Williams ace concluded. “This afternoon was a bit frustrating with the weather interruptions, but we were still able to learn a good amount on the tyres which gives us some preparation for tomorrow. There are still some set-up issues to look at and improvements to make on the car, so we have plenty of work to do overnight.”
Indeed, Mercedes has some work to do in general if it is to successfully bridge the gap currently separating it from McLaren and particularly Bahrain pace-setters Ferrari and Red Bull Racing. Little-by-little, the Stuttgart manufacturer is confident of getting there, but whether any kind of dramatic improvement is apparent around Albert Park remains to be seen.
“It was a frustrating afternoon with the weather,” summarised the Brackley-based outfit's team principal Ross Brawn, “but we were able to get some good work done this morning. However, it's always very difficult to judge where you are on the first day. We made some progress on Michael's side and he was fairly happy with the car. Nico was not quite so happy and we may have gone the wrong way on some changes, so there is still some work to do on the set-up of his car.”
“There were quite challenging circumstances for the teams and drivers in the second session with the frequently changing weather conditions,” concurred Mercedes-Benz Motorsport Vice-President Norbert Haug. “Nico was amongst the quickest in the first session and Michael in the second, but it is difficult to judge our performance compared to our competitors and we have to wait until tomorrow to find out what our results of today mean. All-in-all it was a productive day, and we should have a reasonable baseline for qualifying.”