LONDON, Aug 19, 2011 (AFP) - Twenty years on from his sensational debut as a virtually unknown Formula One driver Michael Schumacher has this week insisted that he will race with Mercedes in 2012 despite widespread rumours that he is set to quit.
The seven-times drivers world champion, now 42, has struggled through a disappointing season so far, but broke off from the final days of his summer holidays to stress that he has no plans to walk away - and no knowledge that he is about to be released.
The great German driver has one year remaining on his contract and has also been given the backing of team boss Norbert Haug.
"His race pace has been great, if not his qualifying, and we are all working very hard together for now and next year," said Haug. "He is totally committed and so are we - and you can see it in his eyes and in his racing."
After 278 races since arriving at Spa-Francorchamps for the Belgian Grand Prix of August 25, 1991, Schumacher is still looking for his first podium finish since his premature retirement in 1996.
His last win, of a record 91, was with Ferrari at the Chinese Grand Prix that year, but he claims his enthusiasm to secure another remains just as strong as he prepares to head back to Belgium for this year's race on August 28.
"Despite some funny rumours and stupid untruthful stories, I keep repeating myself that you will have to see me in 2012, whether you like it or don't like it," he told the Mercedes website."I will be there. And the good thing is that I have a lot of support from all around, in particular from the company, in particular from the team, that they all wish me to be there, so I wish to be there, and I look forward to it."
Recent races have shown glimpses of Schumacher's once-feared competitive aggression, but he has been unable to harness that talent to a car that has the potential to deliver podium finishes this year. "I'm still fit enough. I'm still mentally ready for it. And I like a challenge," he added.
Many believe he has failed to extract as much from the disappointing Mercedes car this year as his 26-year-old compatriot Nico Rosberg, but few would begrudge the old red baron a reminder of his halcyon days again. That could well happen in Belgium next week - it is not only the circuit that is nearest to his family home in Kerpen, but also the place where he made his debut, won his first Grand Prix in 1992 and took the flag first another six times - though his 'triumph' of 1994 was later annulled when a stewards' inquiry declared his Benetton car had broken technical regulations.
This year's return of just 32 points from 11 races may reflect a man unable to rise above the potential, or the restrictions, of his car, but it is not so bad that Mercedes are ready to lose patience with Germany's greatest driver of all time.
Haug admitted there is some pressure on them as a team and on Schumacher as an individual, but defended the old master solidly. "I think you could admit that in qualifying there is something missing, but his race performance this year -- and I'm not speaking against Nico, but over the last five races the race pace was comparable -- well, sometimes Michael is a bit quicker," said Haug.
"And if you look at the overtaking statistics, Michael is leading. Nobody has overtaken more than him. This is quite something, you could say. It'd be difficult for Vettel, starting at the front all the time." In an interview with British magazine Autosport, Haug added: "He is very ambitious, not too ambitions, but he is ambitious and the fire is burning. Look in his eyes and you will see that..."