- Associated Press - Thursday, March 22, 2012

SEPANG, MALAYSIA (AP) - Six years from his most recent Formula One pole position, Michael Schumacher finally has a car that seems capable of putting him on top in qualifying.

He’ll also race on a track that suits his Mercedes at this weekend’s Malaysian Grand Prix.

The seven-time world champion qualified fourth in last weekend’s season-opening Australian Grand Prix, only four tenths of a second from pole, indicating the German is closer to a pole position and a belated podium finish that has eluded him since his 2010 comeback.

Mercedes is using a contentious wing system, which is the subject of ongoing scrutiny from stewards and rival teams. It should produce better results on the long straights and flowing turns of Sepang than it did on the Melbourne street circuit.

“We have an innovation that gives us some performance, but I don’t think its a huge performance,” Schumacher said. “The nature of the track means there will be another slight advantage. Some get a little bit too excited about this compared to reality.”

As strong as Mercedes’ qualifying performance may be, the team’s problem is race pace. Even before he retired with gearbox failure, Schumacher was struggling to keep up with the leaders in Melbourne. Teammate Nico Rosberg finished out of the points in 12th.

“The basic positive is we have a much-improved car to last year,” Schumacher said. “There is still something to learn, but we are positive we can improve in race pace in particular.

“We have got ideas how to improve from what we learned in Melbourne. Whether that is enough to be on the podium is another story as there are at least four cars which are very strong with two McLarens and two Red Bulls.”

The team that everyone needs to catch is McLaren. Jenson Button won in Melbourne while teammate Lewis Hamilton took pole before being unluckily bumped down to third behind Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel because of the bad timing of the safety car emergence.

Button sees two main threats to McLaren extending its edge into a second race _ how the new Pirelli tire compounds behave in tropical Malaysia, and the risk of heavy rain.

“The temperature and the humidity will be the biggest issue for them (the tires), and it’s one of the places where you really don’t know what the weather is going to do,” Button said.

Lotus’ promising performance in Australia meant it was one of four teams, along with McLaren, Red Bull and Mercedes, which were expected to figure prominently in Malaysia, with the notable absence of Ferrari.

The scarlet cars struggled in Australia, with Felipe Massa going to the extent of replacing his entire chassis and most parts for this weekend’s race. Fernando Alonso battled to a creditable fifth in Melbourne, but said having only a one-week gap meant not much improvement can be expected in Malaysia.

“We’re not expecting any big miracles from Australia to here because the cars are identical,” Alonso said.

“This year we are convinced we will fight for (the championships), so we need to stay focussed. I am calm, knowing we need to work to catch up to the guys in front.

“We are not in the situation we wanted to start the 2012 championship, but after 11 years you understand how long is the championship.”

On Thursday, Alonso and other members of the Ferrari team held a ceremony at turn 11 of the Sepang circuit in memory of MotoGP rider Marco Simoncelli, who was killed there last year.

“Racing here will always be sad a little bit and it will be tough knowing one of our colleagues died here, so will be difficult to race,” Alonso said.

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