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Will F1's Michael Schumacher get in gear in Malaysia?

April 2, 2010 |  2:24 pm

It's only the third race of the season, but Formula One is watching closely to see if Michael Schumacher starts flexing the muscle that made him an unprecedented seven-time champion.

After tantalizing the sport by emerging from retirement to join the Mercedes GP team, Schumacher, 41, finished sixth in the season opener in Bahrain (won by two-time champion Fernando Alonso of Ferrari) and 10th last weekend in a soggy race in Australia (won by reigning champion Jenson Button of McLaren).

Schumacher's day in Melbourne got off to a rocky start when a first-lap accident damaged his front wing, forcing him to the pits for repairs and dropping him to the back of the field.

The German driver's next chance comes Sunday at the Malaysian Grand Prix on the Sepang International Circuit outside Kuala Lumpur, where weather is again a major concern, owing to the almost daily dose of heavy rain in the area. Indeed, last year's race was shortened by a deluge at Sepang.

On Friday, Lewis Hamilton -- the 2008 champion and Button's teammate -- posted the fastest laps in both practice sessions. Schumacher was fourth- and fifth-fastest in both practices, respectively.

But Schumacher cautioned that he's keeping his expectations in check for the race, which is scheduled to start at 1 a.m. Pacific time Sunday.

"I felt we had good pace," he said. "However, we have to be realistic about our performance here and we might still be lacking a little compared to the front runners."

In U.S. motor racing, meanwhile, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, the Izod IndyCar Series and drag racing's National Hot Rod Assn. Full Throttle Series all will be off on Easter Sunday.

-- Jim Peltz

Photo: Seven-time Formula One champion Michael Schumacher leaves the pits Friday during the first practice session for the Malaysian Grand Prix near Kuala Lumpur. Credit: Srdjan Suki / European Pressphoto Agency