Record-breaking multiple world champion Michael Schumacher is no less of a driver than he was during his extraordinarily successful 'first' career at the highest level, Norbert Haug has insisted – despite the German legend's somewhat underwhelming and low-key start to F1 2010.
Sixth in Bahrain and an off-colour tenth in Australia – on both occasions behind young Mercedes Grand Prix team-mate and compatriot Nico Rosberg – were a far cry from the Schumacher of old, and the manner in which both rookie Lucas Di Grassi and Heikki Kovalainen for unheralded newcomers Virgin and Lotus respectively brazenly re-passed the 91-time grand prix-winner Down Under in Melbourne last weekend would arguably not have happened three or four years ago.
Nor, for that matter, would the old 'Schumi' – a four-time winner around the streets of Albert Park – have tolerated spending 22 laps stuck behind the noticeably slower Scuderia Toro Rosso of Spanish teenager Jaime Alguersuari. The upshot is that whilst Rosberg heads to Malaysia this weekend sitting a solid fifth in the drivers' standings with 20 points to his name, Schumacher by contrast is three places further back on just nine, a gaping 28 markers off early leader Fernando Alonso.
Three years away from the cut-and-thrust of top flight action and his advancing years now at the age of 41 have dulled the Kerpen native's once fearsomely competitive spirit, scintillating raw speed and ruthless determination to win, say the cynics – but Haug is adamant that Mercedes' highly-paid superstar is still very much on the case, arguing that his true performance has thus far been masked by circumstances.
“Michael is as good as ever,” the Stuttgart manufacturer's motorsport vice-president is quoted as having said by British newspaper The Sun
. “He has got it still. He could sit on his sofa saying, 'Nobody won more than I did' – but this is his passion.
“He is a more relaxed guy than ever, he has fun [and] he is a very good team member [and] team player. If you look at the times, if you look at qualifying, Michael was handicapped behind Alonso [in Melbourne]. It is fair to say it was a very comparable lap to Nico – who I think is one of the highest-rated guys of the current generation, with four years' experience.
“Michael is missing three of those four years, but he is here to be competitive. We have one of the strongest driver pairings in the field. It is up to us to improve the package further, and it is fair to say we improved it [in Australia] compared to Bahrain.”