|Return of the 'mach: Schumacher says he feels like a child waiting for Christmas [GALLO/GETTY]
Michael Schumacher is raring to go racing again, saying he has "recharged" his batteries after running on empty when he retired in 2006.
One of four world champions on what promises to be the most competitive starting grid in years when the action starts in Bahrain on Sunday, the 41-year-old German is revved up to test himself against a new crop of talent.
"I feel like a child looking forward to Christmas," said the seven-times champ.
"I can hardly wait for the season to get underway."
Makings of a classic
It has all the makings of a classic clash but the former Red Baron will still have his work cut out to kick off his comeback with an immediate win for the 'Silver Arrows', the first Mercedes works team since 1955.
Sunday will be his first race since 2006 and first against hot-shot compatriot Sebastian Vettel and 2008 champion Lewis Hamilton, as well as a renewal of combat with old foes Fernando Alonso and reigning top-dog Jenson Button.
It will be Germany against Britain, young guns against an old master with plenty of other subplots written in.
Commercial master Bernie Ecclestone is already rubbing his hands in anticipation.
"I feel fresher than I have for many years," added Schumacher, winner of a record 91 races and teammate to compatriot Nico Rosberg, son of former champion Keke.
"When I retired from racing in 2006, my batteries were simply empty. Now they are totally recharged and I am ready for the challenge."
Schumacher won with Ferrari at Sakhir in 2004, and his lap record will stand the test of time now that the circuit has been lengthened since last year, but that will count for little now.
Pair of kings
Button, who has joined Hamilton at McLaren in what is the sport's first pairing of champions since Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna at the same team in 1989, has looked relaxed pre-season with his move from title-winners Brawn, now Mercedes.
He also faces a big challenge in a team that has appeared moulded around Hamilton but he too is up for it.
"Change is difficult for all of us, but it's also exciting," he said.
|Button and Hamilton form a formidable but potentially fractious team [EPA]
"I've spent so much time at the factory, more than I have in any of my previous years in racing. I've really got to know people, and it's been really good.
"So I feel very at home after two months, which is crazy to say that, but I do, and I go to the first race ready to put in a good performance."
Mercedes team principal Ross Brawn has been honoured by Queen Elizabeth II for guiding his team to the constructors championship last year.
He received the OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) at Buckingham Palace on Wednesday to recognise not only last year's F1 victory under the name of Brawn GP but also 30 years of service to the sport.
Ferrari, with Spaniard Alonso eager to assume the starring role Schumacher once had and Brazilian Felipe Massa returning from his serious head injury, have looked strong in testing.
The Italian team, who had what amounts to a nightmare for them last season, have been sounding a cautious note however.
Seven of the drivers in the four top teams are race winners and all can consider themselves genuine championship contenders.
Red Bull's Vettel, who came into the sport after Schumacher retired with the nickname 'Baby Schumi', is one of them after ending last year as overall runner-up.
His team are also going for their fourth race win in a row.
The ban on refuelling adds an extra strategic dimension while new teams, including the revived Lotus marque, have brought new faces.
Among them is Brazilian Bruno Senna, nephew of the late triple champion Ayrton, who makes his debut with the Spanish HRT team along with Indian Karun Chandhok.
Both will have a baptism of fire in a car put together against a tight deadline and shipped to Bahrain without even the most basic of tests.