Michael Schumacher has again insisted that he can win races with Mercedes this season, responding both to criticism of recent performances and claims from Lewis Hamilton that the veteran won't be able to compete with the new generation.

Schumacher qualified a lowly 15th for this weekend's European Grand Prix, his worst position since returning from a three-year retirement to link up with former Ferrari colleague Ross Brawn at the rechristened Mercedes team, and had to fight off further suggestions that he was now a shadow of the man who claimed seven world titles and rewrote the F1 record books during a glittering career with Benetton and Ferrari.

The Valencia disappointment follows a scrappy performance in the Canadian GP two weeks ago, which not only prompted detailed examination of his season, but also led to suggestions in Italy that Renault's Robert Kubica was being lined up to replace Schumacher next year [see story here].

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The German responded to the post-Montreal criticism from TV pundits by calling it an attempt to build ratings, and maintained that he was still able to mix it with the frontrunning teams should Mercedes' WO1 allow.

"I don't take them seriously," he claimed, "There are different elements to F1 and one part is showbusiness. To moan about me sometimes creates some attention, which is maybe the purpose. I'd rather not have it, or have to hear about it, but that's what it comes down to.

"Yes, you make mistakes and you could have improved certain things, especially with hindsight. But, all in all, I don't think there are many guys around the world who, at 41, come back after a three-year break and compete at this high a level. I've not lost my knowledge of driving. I know what I'm doing and I think I do it to the best I can. When I won 91 grands prix and seven championships, I was thinking then about how I can improve, as I'm doing now."

The opening day in Valencia saw Schumacher uncharacteristically apologising to a fellow driver, having inadvertently blocked 2008 world champion Hamilton in free practice, but may not have done so had he heard the Briton's assessment of his season so far.

"I didn't expect anything from him at the beginning," Hamilton told Britain's Guardian newspaper, "There was an occasion when I saw him before the season started and I kind of thought his commitment was the same as mine at the time.

"After that, he was pushing like crazy - and he still is today. His commitment is the same as always, but it is so challenging. It is very difficult to out-do the youngsters that have the hunger that he had when he started."

Mercedes was generally under-par on Saturday, with Nico Rosberg qualifying only twelfth, and Schumacher pointed out that it was hard for either driver to win when the machinery could not compete with the likes of Hamilton's McLaren, or the pace-setting Red Bulls.

"The car has the potential to do it when certain things go together," the German insisted, "Why we don't do it in qualifying is a question we have to answer for ourselves. Once we can answer it, then there is reason to believe that we can do much better - and even win races this year.

"I've been around long enough. I've had to deal with much worse pain. From my point of view, we have a three-year programme. Obviously, we thought we would be closer and in a better situation already this year but that's not the case. We will have to understand and work our way through, as I did in the past. That's what I'm here for. It's part of the process."

Team boss Ross Brawn admitted that the team, which won both F1 titles under his name in 2009, had a lot of work to do if it was to elevate either Schumacher or Rosberg to the position where they could win races, but insisted that that was the nature of the sport.

"It's a curious thing, but it's the pain that makes the pleasure so much better," he said, "It's impossible to be consistently at the top and fastest, you just can't do it. So these are the periods where you have to show your strengths and make the right moves. If you can't handle this pain, then you shouldn't be involved."