Schumacher throws down the gauntlet

Seven-time champion challenges new generation after £6.2m Mercedes return

Michael Schumacher was immediately installed as third favourite behind Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso to win the Formula One world championship after the seven-time champion confirmed yesterday he was returning to the sport he once dominated.

The 40-year-old German will be paid £6.2m to drive for Mercedes in 2010, recreating the partnership with technical guru Ross Brawn which resulted in Schumacher winning the drivers' world championship with Benetton in 1994 and 1995, and with Ferrari in the years 2000-2004.

Satisfyingly for those for whom Schumacher's ruthlessness on the track means he remains something of a pantomime villain, there was a hint of the old arrogance in the way the old master laid down a challenge to younger drivers such as Hamilton, who have often talked about how much they would have liked to race the old champion: "Well, now they have the chance, so they'd better use it," he said, smiling.

As for the fact 70 per cent of his compatriots expect him to win the championship, what else, suggested Schumacher, should anybody possibly expect? "I have won the title seven times, I'm at a team that won both titles last year, with Mercedes as a partner and team owner, so you cannot expect anything other than to go for the world championship, and that's what we are aiming for," he said.

Hamilton, along with just about everyone involved in a sport which in recent years has become as interesting off the track as it can be uneventful on it, welcomed the news.

"It's great to have Michael back in Formula One. He is a legend and a really nice guy, and I am happy for him that he has once again got an opportunity to do the best job in the world – race in Formula One," he said.

"I used to watch Michael race when I was in the junior categories, and I always hoped that I would be in Formula One while he was still around. I'm really looking forward to seeing him on the track and back at the top."

Whether the young Briton will feel the same way after experiencing first hand Schumacher's legendary, or possibly infamous, drive to win at all costs remains to be seen. In the meantime, however, Hamilton was one voice in a chorus of universal welcome from a sport conscious of the immense publicity value of Schumacher's return.

The German's contemporaries warned the current crop of drivers not to underestimate him. Eddie Irvine, a former Ferrari team-mate, suggested he wouldn't be as fast as he was at his best, but still might be good enough to win the title

"He's not at the peak of his game, but he's still good enough to win races as he has such an immense talent. It's still four wheels, a steering wheel and an engine and there's never been anyone better than Michael," said the Irishman.

Johnny Herbert agreed. "I don't know of anyone that has gone out of F1 and come back and actually achieved something by coming back. Alain Prost wasn't the same when he came back but because of Michael's mentality it is different," he said.

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