VALENCIA // Michael Schumacher looked to have lost none of this competitive edge on his first outing for Mercedes in Valencia yesterday. The 41-year-old, who last competed in Formula One during the 2006 season, was third quickest of eight drivers on the first day of winter testing in Spain. Schumacher took to the wheel of the W01 late in the afternoon session and completed 40 laps, clocking a best time of 1 minute and 12.947 seconds, just under four tenths of a second off the quickest lap of the day set by Ferrari's Felipe Massa.
Tellingly though, Schumacher won his opening battle with teammate Nico Rosberg, whose best time in the Mercedes was more than half a second off his countryman's pace. Schumacher played down the importance of his times and described himself as "a kid with a toy in his hand". He said: "It's like 1991 - my first year in Formula One. There's the same excitement and of course I'm happy to be back. We've done a very good job today. Between us, we did about 80 laps and the car was reliable. For the first day, that's really great."
However, Schumacher admitted he was still getting used to the idea of racing against Ferrari on track for the first time since his second title win at Benetton back in 1995. "Seeing the red car on the track and not being in it was a little bit of a strange sensation," he said, "but I enjoyed it." Ross Brawn, the Mercedes team boss, has pledged to give Rosberg and Schumacher equal billing at the team but Schumacher, the seven-time world champion, now has the initial edge over Rosberg, who will be the sole Mercedes driver in action for today's test session.
The former Williams driver admitted the chance to drive alongside his illustrious teammate had given him an extra buzz ahead of the season start in Bahrain next month. "For me, it's great to have him here - it's fantastic," said Rosberg. "It's given me extra motivation, just a little touch extra having him here. I have experience but there are still things I will pick up from Michael Schumacher as he's one of the best that's ever driven. That's great for me in my career."
As for the competitive nature of the W01, in effect a reworking of the car that guided Jenson Button and Brawn GP to the world title last season, Rosberg said he was unsure. "It felt good as a car but it's impossible to say," he said. "There are so many new circumstances that I can't feel whether or not it's a winner. It felt very good but it's impossible to gauge the performance." The session also marked the return to F1 action for Massa for the first time since his head injury at last season's Hungarian Grand Prix back in July.
The Brazilian dominated the morning session with a quickest time of 1 min 13.088 secs. He shaved further time off that in the afternoon, knocking Pedro de la Rosa from the top of the timesheets late in the day. In all, Massa completed a staggering 102 laps while, for de la Rosa, it proved an impressive debut just 24 hours after the launch of BMW Sauber's C29. The other drivers in action included McLaren test driver Gary Paffett, Williams' Rubens Barrichello, Toro Rosso's Sebastien Buemi and Robert Kubica from Renault.
Testing continues today, with Schumacher having a day off before returning tomorrow. The star attractions of today's test will be Fernando Alonso, driving for Ferrari for the first time, and former McLaren teammate Lewis Hamilton, at the wheel of the MP4-25. Meanwhile, Jaime Alguersuari, the teenager, has hailed Schumacher, a man old enough to be his father, as "a reference" ahead of his first full season in F1.
Last season Alguersuari became the youngest F1 driver in history when he made his debut for Toro Rosso in Hungary in July. As Alguersuari had only ever driven an F1 car in a straight line, it raised the question as to whether he was the most dangerous man in the sport. In his eight grands prix, the 19-year-old naturally struggled, with his best finish 14th in the race in Brazil, suffering retirements in five.
But despite only half a season under his belt Alguersuari will take part in his F1 test tomorrow when he will find himself on the same circuit as 41-year-old Schumacher. "It is nice for me to be driving against Michael," said Alguersuari. "His returns makes everything stronger, everyone more motivated. Michael is not just the number one in F1, but for me he is also someone to follow after F1. "In his personal life, he is a professional athlete, and that is really good from his perspective. It's great he has come back, but he is just another driver on the track. He commands the same respect as any other driver."
Despite Schumacher courting controversy on more than one occasion - most notably for collisions in title-deciding races - Alguersuari believes he can be forgiven, and instead is someone to admire. "For me, Michael is a good reference, but he is still human," added Alguersuari who will drive Toro Rosso's new car, the STR5. "Anyone can make mistakes, either crash or go off the track. The one who makes less mistakes is the best, and I guess Michael is someone like that.
"When he left F1 he tried to be fast on bikes, and when he drives a go-kart, he tries to be quick there and competes. That's what motorsport is about, what I appreciate on Michael's side, his love of racing." @Email:email@example.com