BERLIN, March 9 – On the eve of his comeback, Michael Schumacher admits he may not win Sunday's opening race of the 2010 Formula One campaign, but expects to be in contention for an eighth world title at season's end.Britain’s Jenson Button will be bidding to defend the crown he won in 2009, but all eyes will be on the return of seven-times Schumacher when the 41-year-old ends his three-year hiatus at the Bahrain Grand Prix.
Having signed a three-year deal with German team Mercedes GP before Christmas, Schumacher will be reunited with team principal Ross Brawn, who oversaw all of the Germans’ world titles.
But after such a long break away from Formula One, Schumacher faces the new crop of drivers in Britain’s Lewis Hamilton and Button at McLaren, while Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel will also give his compatriot a run for his money.
After Brawn GP won the manufacturer’s championship in 2009 before Mercedes took control, Button’s defection to McLaren in the off-season paved the way for Schumacher’s return.
Expectation of another title is high in his home country, but Schumacher expects to be judged on the final standings at the end of the season, not on Sunday’s results.
"I said it quite clearly from the beginning: we do not have to – and probably will not – be in the position to win right from the start," Schumacher said.
"It is important to be in contention and then use the long season to be at the top at the end.
"It is not the start which is important; it is the finish."
Vettel has said all of Formula One’s current young guns are eager to prove themselves against someone of Schumacher’s stature.
"For the younger drivers, it is a challenge (to have Schumacher racing again), because we never thought we would have a chance to test ourselves against him again," said Vettel.
"From a statistical point of view, he is the best."
Schumacher nearly returned last year with his old stable Ferrari as a replacement for the injured Felipe Massa, but an old neck injury from motorbike racing foiled his plans.
Having not raced for three years, time is against the German as Formula One racing waits to see whether the old master will dominate again after three years away from Grand Prix racing.
But there is plenty of fight in the former champion who will be the name to beat this season, the question is is the veteran ready to slug it out with his younger rivals?
"Absolutely, yes," he said.
"This is what I am here for, and I am confident Mercedes can play a role in this fight.
"The team won both titles last year, and now, with Mercedes on board, they want to repeat this success.
"We all want to win. The season will be long and hard, no doubt about that, but I love this fight – it is because of this fight that I came back to Formula One."
With no refuelling allowed mid-race this year, Schumacher says his experience will give him an advantage.
"Saving tyres will be an important factor," he said.
"You will have less sets of tyres available than last year which makes it harder to do what you need to do for setting up the car perfectly.
"But driving is always about adapting to new circumstance, and this is one of my strong points.
"I would say the biggest difference are the tyres. You will have to develop a good feeling for them."