Michael Schumacher has re-iterated that his thus far desperately disappointing return to front-line competition with Mercedes Grand Prix in 2010 is 'not a short-term view' and that he fully intends to see out his three-year contract with the Stuttgart manufacturer - insisting that he has 'had to deal with much worse pain' in the past and even going so far as to evoke the possibility of victories later on this season.

The tally from the opening nine grands prix of F1 2010 has been a damning one indeed for the most successful driver in the sport's long history, with no fewer than seven world championship crowns, 91 grand prix victories, 154 rostrum finishes and 1,369 points to his name prior to his much-hyped and celebrated comeback this year.

Contrast that with a best result of fourth place, a mere 34 points - in comparison with young team-mate and compatriot Nico Rosberg's tally of 75, including a brace of podiums to-boot - and a nadir of 15th position in qualifying after embarrassingly barely scraping through Q1 and the same spot in the race in last weekend's European Grand Prix in Valencia, the German legend's worst classified finish ever.

That abject form has cast the wisdom of his return under the spotlight and led to paddock speculation that Mercedes is evaluating the possibility of replacing 'Schumi' come the end of the campaign with Renault star Robert Kubica - one of the undoubted stand-out performers of the season to-date, and with whom the Kerpen native crossed swords in the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal earlier this month, before similarly controversially clashing with former Ferrari team-mate, friend and prot?g? Felipe Massa en route to a lowly eleventh place at the chequered flag following a distinctly scrappy showing. The man himself, though, is adamant that he is not letting the criticism get to him.

"I'm not here with a short-term view, that I just look from race-to-race and have to have a single result," the 41-year-old told reporters. "From my point-of-view, we have a three-year programme. I can handle the pain. I've been around long enough and I've had to deal with much worse pain, but this is part of the process in a way and part of the joy from a different point-of-view.

"Obviously we thought we would be closer and in a better situation this year, but that has not been the case so we have to understand [and] work our way through it as we did in the past. That's what I'm here for. Once the progress comes, which I'm sure it will, then you get rewarded. I know what's going on and I care only about motorsport, what is real and what I know and have to worry about. Once we can solve our problems, then there is reason to believe we can do much better, and even win races this year."

Whilst Schumacher has been denigrated in various circles - with erstwhile sparring partner-turned-BBC F1 pundit David Coulthard lamenting his efforts as 'tentative' and 'sloppy, and his ex-team boss Eddie Jordan agreeing that the 41-year-old 'is clearly not at ease with himself', adding that 'if it was anyone other than the great Michael Schumacher, most of the press would be looking for his head, because clearly his performance in the past couple of races has been very poor' - Mercedes' management have again sprung to the defence of their under-pressure talisman driver, and brusquely dismissed the Kubica talk.

"We haven't spoken to Robert Kubica," asserted the Brackley-based outfit's team principal Ross Brawn, who expertly masterminded each and every one of Schumacher's seven titles at the highest level between 1994 and 2004, firstly at Benetton and subsequently Ferrari. "I spoke to him at Brawn GP a year ago when we were looking at the future, but we haven't spoken to him since then. There are no discussions going on - we're very happy with Michael.

"We have to sort the car out - that's the main issue. We're confident that when we get the technical package together, our drivers will succeed. It's a curious thing, but it's the pain that makes the pleasure so much better. Having been in this business so long, you know you will have days and periods like this.

"It's impossible to be consistently at the top and consistently fastest. You can't do it, so these are the periods when you have to show your strengths - but it is a pain we put ourselves through because that's the nature of the business, and if you can't handle this pain then you shouldn't be involved."

"Somebody drops a name or a line and then it goes on-and-on," echoed Mercedes-Benz Motorsport Vice-President Norbert Haug of the rumours. "There was no contact whatsoever."

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