Riccardo Patrese, once the record holder of the most grand prix's contested, maintains the Michael Schumacher of present is not performing at his pre-retirement level.

Patrese, a veteran of 256 GP's and former team-mate of Schumacher at Benetton is obviously more than qualified to make this assumption. The Italian not only witnessed firsthand the raw speed of his younger team-mate but also of the competitors he beat in the shape of Ayrton Senna and Nigel Mansell.

The perception from some is that the seven-time world champion is simply racing a higher calibre grid, but Patrese disagrees with this and states 'a small drop in performance' from the Mercedes man is restricting the difference he can make in an inferior car, something Schumacher was once renowned for.

"Michael raced against drivers like Senna, Mansell and myself and proved immediately that he could be competitive and better," Patrese told his personal website in a Q&A session. "Now we have drivers like [Lewis] Hamilton and [Sebastian] Vettel who look very good but I don't think they are better than Senna, Mansell or the drivers that were around when Michael started in F1, so I think Michael is a little below the level of performance compared to his very best.

"Michael proved himself against the best when he started in F1 so if he can't match the best today perhaps it is because he does not have the best car, but in the past without the right car he was able to make the difference; now he can't make the difference."

Patrese, however, still thinks the 43-year old can win races given the right car, an obviously vital weapon which the German veteran simply hasn't received since his comeback.

"If he had the best car now he could still win races, but in the past, even without the best car, he could win," Patrese added.

The former Williams driver is also under the opinion that the neck injury, which the 91 grand prix winner sustained back in 2009 thanks to a motorcycle accident and which halted his highly anticipated Ferrari comeback, could be to blame for his drop in performance.

"You know how much I respect Michael and his talent but from what I have seen this is not the same Michael as before his retirement," the Italian emphasised. "I have my doubts about whether this is because of the tyres or the new regulations.

"Maybe his motorcycle and neck injury has had an effect in some small way. The difference can be very, very small but there seems to be a difference."

by Simon Evans