Michael Schumacher has answered his critics who contend that the record-breaking grand prix legend's return to top flight competition in F1 2010 has been somewhat underwhelming, insisting that he has 'made the maximum out of my possibilities' and 'can still fight for the championship'.
Having rejoined the fray in a blaze of publicity and anticipation, sixth place in the Bahrain Grand Prix curtain-raiser and a lowly tenth in Australia a fortnight later – on both occasions behind Mercedes Grand Prix team-mate Nico Rosberg – fell some way short of what most had been expecting or hoping for.
In Melbourne, indeed, the multiple F1 World Champion spent a grand total of 22 laps tucked up behind the visibly slower Scuderia Toro Rosso of Jaime Alguersuari, who the 'Schumi' of old, contend the detractors, would have dispatched with scant ceremony – though the 20-year-old Spaniard did later opine that the 91-time grand prix-winner 'will end the season in the top group', amidst calls from Mercedes team principal Ross Brawn for some patience to be shown to allow the Kerpen native to re-adjust and re-find his form.
Despite Rosberg having outscored him thus far by 20 points to just nine, Schumacher himself is adamant that all is continuing to run according to plan – and after lapping solidly inside the top five throughout the opening day of practice for the Malaysian Grand Prix, albeit still in the shadow of his young compatriot, the 41-year-old is hopeful of taking the next step forwards in his comeback this weekend by battling for a podium finish in Sepang.
“That is what people like to see at the moment, but it's not what I see,” the German legend bristled, when asked by reporters if he considered his form to-date in 2010 to be disappointing. “I'm sorry that my opinion is different to what some media feel I should be happy with or not happy with, but it's a free opinion for everybody. I'm quite happy. I have made the maximum out of my possibilities and from what we can do. It is a long season and we can still fight for the championship.
“I am quite happy overall with our work today, and the practice sessions went very much as we expected. We did have a an issue with the brakes this morning so I did not start running right away, but once we were out on-track I felt we had good pace. However, we have to be realistic about our performance here and we might still be lacking a little compared to the front-runners. The good thing is that you can play with the lines a bit to find time as the track here is quite wide, but in the end, as usual, we will have to wait and see how qualifying and the weather evolve. [A podium is] probably the maximum we can look for at the moment.”
Rosberg, for his part, wound up third-quickest at the close of play on Friday in Malaysia, just under three tenths of a second shy of Lewis Hamilton, and two tenths clear of Schumacher after conducting a similar programme of tyre compound evaluation available for Sunday's race alongside set-up work on the MGP W01 for the specific demands of the fast and challenging Sepang International Circuit.
“Our programme went according to plan today and we made progress over the two practice sessions,” reported the highly-rated 24-year-old. “The tyre work which we completed was particularly useful, so we have a lot to go through this evening to see if we can continue to improve the car prior to qualifying. It's always tough here in Malaysia with the heat and humidity, but Sepang is one of my favourite circuits to drive.”
Mercedes still has some work to do if it is to close the gap presently separating it from early-season pace-setters Red Bull Racing and Ferrari, as well as McLaren-Mercedes, and Brawn hopes the team's first 'home' race of the campaign – in deference to title sponsor Petronas – will yield a timely first rostrum finish of 2010 into the bargain.
“It has been a busy Friday for the team here in Malaysia,” the Englishman acknowledged. “The two dry sessions have enabled us to complete the majority of the planned programme for Nico and Michael, although the track conditions did change this afternoon following a rain shower. The priority today was to evaluate the Prime and Option tyres. Whilst all of the teams were running different tyre programmes – which makes it difficult to predict our relative pace – we are reasonably satisfied with what we achieved and looking forward to the challenge of the weekend.”
“This is going to be a very challenging race with extreme stress on the drivers, cars and tyres, and particularly all of the team members who have to work in real sauna conditions,” concurred Mercedes-Benz Motorsport Vice-President Norbert Haug. “The heat and humidity is almost guaranteed and rises in the afternoon. It's difficult to estimate where we are today, but generally we are not where we need to be just yet.”