Schumacher rolls back the years with a car he can throw at corners

Mercedes' seven-times world champion shows he's no back number at 42 by posting fastest time in practice

Shanghai

"Is Michael past his sell-by date?" Johnny Herbert, standing in as a Sky TV commentator for Damon Hill this weekend, pondered the question for a moment, shortly before the man whom he had partnered at Benetton in 1995 set the fastest time in yesterday's second practice for the Chinese Grand Prix.

"No, actually I would think he's pretty close to his peak," Herbert answered, unconsciously rubbing his own waistline as he added: "And if you look at him physically, he is in great shape at 42."

It's clear that the multiple world champion has a car that suits his style this year, and he looks more comfortable and more like his old self than at any time since his comeback in 2010. Now he has one he can throw at a corner, relying totally on front-end grip, and whose tail happiness he can worry about and control as he exits.

Moreover, yesterday he drove it with the added boost of knowing that the FIA race stewards have declared its innovative wing-stalling system as fully legal. When he set the best time, and saw the morning session's fastest runner, Lewis Hamilton, come up short in his attempt to dislodge the Mercedes, it made it a great day.

"It was a trouble-free day, and I am quite happy with how our car is handling so far here," Schumacher said cheerfully. "The balance of the car was reasonably good, and obviously a balanced car contributes a lot to lap time. As a team, we are a lot stronger in certain areas this season, and we have a much better base to work from, although we are not quite where we want to be with this car yet – but I am confident we will get there.

"We will now have to look deeper into the data in order to find out where we really are here, but I am looking forward to tomorrow's qualifying."

It remains to be seen if Mercedes have solved the tyre degradation problems that have restricted them to the single point Schumacher scored for 10th place in Malaysia, but the camp is optimistic. As it is at McLaren, despite Hamilton's five-place grid penalty for the gearbox change that he will have today, and a problem on both his car and Jenson Button's with locking front brakes.

"It's been a great day," Hamilton said. "It stayed dry in the afternoon so we successfully got through our run programme. We're still working away to improve the set-up, but the new bits seem to be working. The guys back at the factory have done a great job.

"We look competitive – and I've been particularly focusing on the longer runs for this weekend. We still need to make a few improvements but our car looks good. We will be changing the gearbox on my car before the third practice session. It's going to be a close qualifying session tomorrow – I think we'll still be in the race and among the leading group. I love the challenge of coming through and gaining positions."

Button had a less happy time. "It's been a little bit of a difficult day for me," he said. "I was trying to find a good set-up but the cold weather made it difficult to understand the car because the tyres weren't working perfectly.

"Tomorrow should be a bit warmer than today – we don't quite understand the tyre temperatures and can't get them quite in the right area. And if we make a set-up change and the tyre temp changes by five or 10 degrees, then that change goes out the window. That's something for us to sort out, but we've got a lot of useful information from the low- and high-fuel runs.

"It's been a tricky day but there's a lot of good information to go through – we'll find a better direction overnight."

It was a good day for Sebastien Vettel, who was only 0.15sec slower than Hamilton after running a modified exhaust system on his Red Bull.

"It's tight between the cars," he said. "I haven't seen everything, but I think overall we can be quite happy. We tried a lot of things today and now we need to go through everything and see what the best set-up is ... I felt more comfortable, but we'll see."

And he warned: "It's tricky to say if we look competitive. McLaren look good in all conditions."

Focus on China: Three things to watch this weekend

1 Lewis Hamilton's progress towards the front from wherever he eventually starts once a five-place grid penalty is levied for a gearbox change. The 2008 and 2011 Chinese GP winner is in great form this weekend and desperate to score his first victory of the 2012 season.

2 The pace of the Sauber-Ferrari driver Sergio Perez, the hero of the recent Malaysian GP, if, as forecast, light rain falls during the race. The Mexican is a master of preserving his tyres and has a car that is notably kind to them, and wants nothing more than to go one place better than he did in Sepang.

3 The qualifying and race performances of Red Bull, who have made changes to their exhaust in the search for more speed, and Lotus who have reverted to the Malaysia aerodynamic specification after a troubled practice yesterday chasing tyre temperatures.

David Tremayne

Practice times

FIA Formula One UBS Chinese Grand Prix, Shanghai, China

First Practice: 1 L Hamilton (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1min 37.106sec, 2 Nico Rosberg (Ger) Mercedes 1:38.116, 3 M Schumacher (Ger) Mercedes 1:38.316, 4 S Perez (Mex) Sauber-Ferrari 1:38.584, 5 K Kobayashi (Japan) Sauber-Ferrari 1:38.911, 6 M Webber (Aus) Red Bull-Renault 1:38.977, 7 S Vettel (Ger) Red Bull-Renault 1:39.198, 8 J Button (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1:39.199, 9 D Ricciardo (Aus) Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:39.748, 10 J-E Vergne (Fr) Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:39.768, 11 F Alonso (Sp) Ferrari 1:40.056, 12 F Massa (Br) Ferrari 1:40.153, 13 V Bottas (Fin) Williams-Renault 1:40.298, 14 N Hulkenberg (Ger) Force India-Mercedes 1:40.328, 15 P Maldonado (Ven) Williams-Renault 1:40.540, 16 H Kovalainen (Fin) Caterham-Renault 1:41.071, 17 R Grosjean (Fr) Lotus-Renault 1:41.204, 18 T Glock (Ger) Marussia-Cosworth 1:42.330, 19 G Van Der Garde (Neth) Caterham-Renault 1:42.521, 20 J Bianchi (Fr) Force India-Mercedes 1:44.118, 21 P de la Rosa (Sp) HRT-Cosworth 1:44.227, 22 C Pic (Fr) Marussia-Cosworth 1:44.500, 23 N Karthikeyan (India) HRT-Cosworth 1:47.204, 24 K Raikkonen (Fin) Lotus-Renault 1:50.465.

Second Practice: 1 Schumacher 1min 35.973sec, 2 Hamilton 1:36.145, 3 Vettel 1:36.160, 4 Webber 1:36.433, 5 Rosberg 1:36.617, 6 Button 1:36.711, 7 KKobayashi 1:36.956, 8 P di Resta (GB) Force India 1:36.966, 9 Hulkenberg 1:37.191, 10 Alonso 1:37.316, 11 Perez 1:37.417, 12 Ricciardo Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:37.616, 13 Raikkonen 1:37.836, 14 Vergne 1:37.930, 15 Grosjean 1:37.972, 16 Maldonado 1:38.176, 17 Massa 1:38.293, 18 B Senna (Br) Williams-Renault 1:38.783, 19 Kovalainen 1:38.990, 20 V Petrov (Rus) Caterham-Renault 1:39.346, 21 Glock 1:39.651, 22 De la Rosa 1:40.343, 23 Pic 1:40.753, 24 Karthikeyan 1:41.125.

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