Mark Webber believes that former Williams team-mate Nico Rosberg is capable of maintaining his early-season advantage over the returning Michael Schumacher, despite the German's previous record in Formula One.

Rosberg, who partnered Webber for a single season at the Grove team in 2006, out-qualified and out-raced seven-time world champion Schumacher on the German's much-hyped return to the top flight but, while many expect Schumacher to gradually gain the upper hand, Webber is adamant that the status quo will remain in the younger man's favour.

"I wouldn't expect [Schumacher] to beat Nico, [although] I expect it to be close," the Australian told journalists ahead of his home race this weekend, "Rosberg is competitive and I would say Schumacher is too, [but] I have never ever seen a phenomenal comeback. I think it will be a bloody hard season for [Schumacher]."

Observers point to Schumacher's three-year absence from the top flight, in which time there was a fundamental shift in the regulations, and the 2010 changes that mandate narrower front tyres, as counting in Rosberg's favour, and the son of 1982 world champion Keke is confident that he can at least match his illustrious team-mate, having been unexpectedly paired with him at the rebranded Mercedes GP Petronas squad this season.

"What I want is to be at eye-level with Michael," he insisted to Germany's Bild, "If I was to only draw my confidence from Michael's statistics, then it would not be very good for me, but no-one is perfect. There are certainly areas where I am strong, and I think that I can show a strong performance in Australia. I feel very comfortable in the car at the moment, [although] we still have some small problems that need resolving."

One man who went head-to-head with Schumacher, however, believes that Rosberg may have it harder than Webber claims.

"He can be world champion again," Jacques Villeneuve warned German news agency SID, "In his first race after three years out, he was only a few tenths behind, which was a very good performance. Give him a few races and he will be back to where he was with Ferrari."