NASCAR

Schumacher begins 'last' F1 season with questions

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MADRID (AP)

Michael Schumacher enters the last season of his three-year Formula One comeback with plenty of questions surrounding the seven-time world champion.

Schumacher's decision to end his retirement in December 2009 was initially greeted with euphoria. But the 43-year-old German has fallen short of expectations, and now another F1 season awaits starting with the Australian Grand Prix on March 18.

Schumacher has won the most world championships as well as most wins (91) and pole positions (68). However, in the two seasons since joining Mercedes, when he looked to follow Niki Lauda and Alain Prost as drivers who came out of retirement to win F1 titles, his best performance was fourth at the Canadian GP.

Another German, Sebastian Vettel, enters the season as clear favorite. He is trying to win a third straight title on a competitive grid that also includes former champions Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button and Kimi Raikkonen.

''Victory to me is unlikely, I see Red Bull in front,'' Schumacher said. ''Behind them it will be tight, and you can be either hero or zero very quickly. It will come down a lot to the ability of how well you will be setting up your car to the respective track.''

Schumacher joined Mercedes after the German manufacturer bought out Brawn, F1's then-reigning constructors' champion. He was reunited with Ross Brawn, his technical director at Ferrari, where he won five of his titles, and was joined by promising German driver Nico Rosberg.

''Both drivers are capable of winning. There's no doubt in my mind about that,'' Brawn said. ''We have got to produce the car. I don't think we have the car yet but it has been a good step over where we were 12 months ago.''

But the script hasn't gone to plan as Schumacher regularly finished in the top-10 but never challenged front-runners Red Bull, McLaren or Ferrari over the past two seasons.

Still, Schumacher was upbeat about his W03 car's reliability this season.

''There is potential,'' Schumacher said. ''I do not have a clear picture yet. What we can say though is that the gap between several teams will not be as big as it was last year.''

Whether Mercedes has done enough to propel Schumacher into a fairy-tale ending to his career is uncertain - though unlikely. Whether the season-ending Brazilian GP will be his last race is another unknown.

''That's just totally unimportant at the moment. I don't even think about it now,'' Schumacher said. ''Now, it is all about focussing and concentrating on understanding our car so that we will have a positive season. I will certainly not be nailed down now.''

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