Even as his most ardent fans lose hope, Michael Schumacher still believes he can win the Formula One championship in his comeback season.
Going into this weekend’s Chinese Grand Prix, the seven-time world champion has just nine championship points from the first three races of the season - 30 behind championship leader Felipe Massa of Ferrari, and 26 behind his current Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg.
“If we have quick development speed, there is no reason we can’t fight for the championship,” Schumacher said.
“It’s far from thinking and feeling the season is over for Nico and myself.”
After a credible comeback race in Bahrain where he finished sixth, Schumacher had his Australian race plans destroyed by a first-corner collision, and then retired early in Malaysia after a wheelnut failure.
That has been enough for many to write off Schumacher, but the German remained unperturbed.
“I have been long enough around to know the wave of emotion,” Schumacher said. “In the winter, everyone was very emotional and supportive and positive and when you are up on this wave, it’s a natural happening that you fall over it.
“Yes, I would have loved to have better results, but the competition is high. Having all this experience, coming back after this break, I feel more than happy with what is going on.”
Still, a season that began with speculation of a four-way fight for the championship between Mercedes, Red Bull, Ferrari and McLaren now looms as a contest between the latter three.
The three contending teams have each won one of the opening three races, making this week’s event in Shanghai something of a tiebreaker ahead of the teams’ return home for the European portion of the season.
Red Bull has been the fastest but not the most reliable team in the opening races. Sebastian Vettel scotched talk of being the championship front-runner when the team trails Ferrari in the standings.
“Maybe for you I am the man to beat, but for myself I don’t think about these things,” Vettel said. “We know we have a very good car but the other teams are always improving. There’s a very, very long straight here so McLaren could be quite strong again.
“If you look at the world championship ranking, there is no gap, we are behind the others. We have to catch up.”
Vettel’s concern about the McLaren threat was based on that team’s F-duct - an aerodynamic device that stalls the rear wing and delivers greater speed on the straights. That will be very valuable on Shanghai’s prodigious 1.2-kilometre-long back straight.
Vettel estimated the F-duct would be worth about half a second per lap to McLaren around the Shanghai circuit, and Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso shared his view.
“I expect McLaren will be very, very strong this weekend,” Alonso said. “But I still feel Red Bull will have a little advantage again on everyone here.”
Much of Red Bull’s domination this season had been based on its speed in qualifying. That had spread speculation that it was using a device or method that changed the ride height of its cars between qualifying and race.
That speculation had been strong enough to prompt the sport’s authorities to reiterate the ban on any such changes. Although Red Bull has consistently denied doing anything that contravened that rule, other teams would be hoping the fresh directive would force them to abandon any such methods or devices from China onward.
“If they did (change ride height) then they are going to be coming back toward us now,” McLaren driver Jenson Button said.