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Schumacher still in search of old magic

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Sarah Holt | 16:09 UK time, Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Three days after a frustrating Australian Grand Prix, Michael Schumacher climbed back into a Formula 1 car for a public demonstration of donuts, pit-stops and burning rubber in Malaysia.

Driving around a car park in the centre of Kuala Lumpur was probably not what the seven-time world champion had in mind when he agreed to return to the sport after a three-year hiatus.

But then again, two races into the 2010 season, it has hardly been the comeback that Schumacher or his Mercedes team would have wanted either.

The record-breaking German, winner of 91 grands prix, has collected just nine points out of a possible 50, with a sixth-place finish in Bahrain and a battling 10th in Australia.

"We know we still have to develop the car a bit more," Schumacher told the crowd at another PR appearance under the shadow of the city's Petronas Towers - named for the national oil company that is also Mercedes' title sponsor.

It's not just the car that is off the pace, though.

Away from the public stage, Schumacher said he felt he was squeezing as much out of the Mercedes as possible.

The 41-year-old may well be driving at his limit but he is not yet up to the speed of his younger team-mate Nico Rosberg, who has found more time out of the car to trump his famous compatriot in all but two sessions this season.

In Melbourne, Schumacher surprisingly found himself embroiled with backmarkers; at one stage he was re-passed by rookie Lucas di Grassi's Virgin before struggling to find a way past Jaime Alguersuari's Toro Rosso.

Niki Lauda, who successfully came out of a two-year retirement in 1982 and went on to win his third title with McLaren in 1984, predicted Schumacher would be back to his best three races into his comeback.

Michael Schumacher drives in front of the Petronas TowersSchumacher will hope to be closer to his best form in Malaysia. Photograph: Getty

Ahead of this season's third grand prix in Malaysia on Sunday, Schumacher rated himself as "very close" to the form he was in before retiring at the end of 2006 and was confident that he could take another step forward at the Sepang circuit.

"A podium is what I envisage here," said Schumacher, who has won three times under Malaysia's tropical skies. "The track is a big challenge but maybe some rain at the right moment will help."

Mercedes have cautiously set themselves a longer deadline to return to the front of the constructors' class.

The team won both championships last season in their former guise as Brawn, as Jenson Button streaked to sizzling victories in six out of the first seven races to lay the foundations for the crown he won in Brazil in October.

But Mercedes are a long way off 2009's early dominance and the team now find themselves with the fourth fastest car on the grid behind Red Bull, Ferrari and McLaren.

"Last year was a fairytale but those things don't last long," team boss Ross Brawn said. "Our reliability is good but we need to find some more time; we're not quick enough yet. It's a very important phase for the team now but by the European races we'll be in a stronger position."

The problem with expecting the Spanish Grand Prix on 9 May to be the scene of a big step forward because of a major technical upgrade is that all the teams will be doing the exact same thing as, after four long-haul races, they can absorb new parts and solutions currently being worked on at their European bases.

McLaren's innovative aerodynamic "F-duct" has already been copied by Sauber while McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh and Brawn have both said their teams are looking at imitating what they believe to be Red Bull's adjustable ride-height system.

But Brawn knows as well as anyone that the only way you can catch your rivals is if your rate of development is the fastest and most effective.

"We are building for a stronger future," he added. "So we can be a strong team for a number of years."

German car giant Mercedes may not be putting any pressure on the team after just two races but there's no doubt that there is a long-term desire to succeed.

The "Silver Arrows" returned to Formula 1 after an absence of 55 years after winning back-to-back crowns with legendary Argentine Juan Manuel Fangio in 1954 and 1955.

As a brand, Mercedes is synonymous with success in motorsport and the company will ultimately want more if it is to be prevented following fellow manufacturers Honda, Toyota and BMW out of F1.

"We promise we will do it step-by-step," said Mercedes motorsport vice-president Norbert Haug in Malaysia. "But you need to be patient."

As rumours begin to swirl about Schumacher's future, it remains to be seen whether he, too, has the patience to come good on his promise to stick it out for "as long as it takes".


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