Bernie Ecclestone believes that Michael Schumacher returning to Formula One would be 'fantastic' for the sport, even though he admits that the new breed of 'young guns' has been able to flourish in the German's absence.

Schumacher continues to attend grands prix in his 'special assistant' role with Ferrari, and has dabbled - with mixed success - in motorcycle racing since retiring from F1 as a seven-time world champion in 2006, but Ecclestone reckons that seeing the 37-year old mixing it with the likes of Lewis Hamilton, Robert Kubica and Sebastian Vettel would add something to the sport - especially the thought of two generations of German driver pitting themselves against each other.

"A comeback by Michael would be fantastic," he told Germany's Welt am Sonntag, "The seven-time world champion as a challenger of the young lions would be a dream come true....."

Ecclestone admitted that his thoughts had been concentrated by the form of this year's Ferrari challenge, particularly that of reigning world champion Kimi Raikkonen, who he felt had been overshadowed by team-mate Felipe Massa.

"I am extremely disappointed by Kimi," he revealed, "I have no idea [why he isn't driving like a world champion], because he is [usually] such a fantastic driver. I thought he might not be motivated any longer, but then he signed for two further years at Ferrari. For me, Kimi is a riddle.

"I have to admit, however, that I have supported Felipe for some time, and have helped him where I can. To me, he has been underestimated for some time, but now he is in a position to show his true potential - and definitely handled Kimi at Ferrari."

Hamilton aside, it is Vettel, however, in whom Ecclestone best sees champion potential, hence the wish to see the youngster - dubbed 'Baby Schumi' by the German press - go up against the man who inspired the nickname.

"When [Vettel] ran at the Turkish Grand Prix [Friday practice for BMW Sauber] the other year, I made him fully aware that he had got his superlicence only under reservation," he admitted, "I did not want him to overdo things and make mistakes. However, when I looked at the lap times the next day, it was noticeable that Sebastian had set the fastest time. It was extraordinary but today I know that he will become world champion.

"Sebastian is young, smart and friendly. He is the ideal supplement for half a dozen of young F1 drivers that are all in the position to become world champion in the future."

Vettel's success at Monza recently would no doubt have been welcomed by Ecclestone, as would the victories for fellow 'young lions' Kubica and Heikki Kovalainen this year, and the possibility of similarly wet conditions in Japan this weekend will not have been lost on either the F1 supremo or others believing in the German's talent.

Running only his fifth race with Toro Rosso, Vettel was in position for a points finish - if not a podium - when he crashed into Mark Webber under the safety car in atrocious conditions at Fuji in 2007 and, armed with a more potent machine this year, would be among the favourites for victory should the same conditions prevail this weekend.

"A wet race would benefit us," admitted STR boss Gerhard Berger, "Sebastian has already shown that he is a good, quick rain driver."

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