Michael Schumacher is certain to make his Formula One comeback with Mercedes' new team in 2010 his fellow countryman Timo Glock said at yesterday's launch of the new Virgin Racing team. And as Ferrari made it clear that they will not hold Schumacher to the consultancy contract he has held since his retirement from racing at the end of 2006, the whispers about his return were turning to shouts within the Formula One world.
"The flame is still there, it's still burning," said Glock, the former Toyota driver who will be partnered at Virgin by the Brazilian rookie Lucas di Grassi, "and it will be great if Michael returns. For me, it is quite obvious he is coming back. There's still a lot of speculation, but in the end he is a crazy race driver and he wants to come back to racing. It's not enough for him to just do kart races, or to go to the Race of Champions at the end of each year."
Ferrari's president, Luca di Montezemolo, scotched suggestions that the Italian manufacturer would not release Schumacher from his contract yesterday: "It is not binding. It is clear that if he decides to take another road our agreement will no longer be valid, that is logical. You can't work with a competitor and with us at the same time. But I still haven't spoken to Michael about it. He is only a dear friend, not a team member."
Schumacher tried to return in July as stand-in for Ferrari's injured Felipe Massa, but his neck, injured in a motorcycle race in February, proved unable to withstand the high G-forces imposed by an F1 car. It is now believed that these problems are behind him, and he recently won one of the kart races organised by Massa in Brazil. Though the cornering forces are lower in a kart, it is clear that his competitive spirit is undiminished.
It is also thought that events in his personal life have made him consider a return to his "comfort zone" of wheel-to-wheel competition.
There has been no reaction from Schumacher's representatives beyond a spokeswoman's comment last month: "Michael is enjoying his life. A return to Formula One is not a subject for debate at the moment." But it may be telling that fellow countryman Nick Heidfeld, believed a likely candidate for the second Mercedes seat alongside Nico Rosberg, was also hedging his bets as a possible driver for Lotus until they announced their pairing of Jarno Trulli and Heikki Kovalainen on Monday.
Recently Germany's Bild newspaper reported that Mercedes have formally offered the seven-time world champion a relatively modest salary of €7m (£6.3m) to join their line-up. Any contract, however, is likely to be subject to a clause that Schumacher first completes a successful test in January.