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Schu steps back to hit top gear

MICHAEL Schumacher is to take the unusual step of testing a GP2 Series development car in the latest stage of his preparations for his hotly awaited comeback to Formula One.

The 41-year-old German legend has not been in a competitive Formula One racing car for more than three years and he is champing at the bit to get going.

While he awaits the first of four official pre-season tests next month with his new team, Mercedes GP, he has decided to take the opportunity to test a GP2 car to help to get his eye in.

In a move that some of his rivals may view as a sign that the seven-times world champion might struggle to get up to pace in time for the first race in Bahrain on March 14, Schumacher will drive a Super Nova car at Jerez, Spain, over three days.

The private test session, which started today and continues until Thursday, has been approved by the FIA, the sport's governing body, which is not allowing drivers to try their new Formula One cars until the first official test early next month at Valencia as part of its mission to cut costs.

GP2 Series cars are about six seconds a lap slower than Formula One cars in dry conditions, are built to strict one-design rules and are fairly crude machines in comparison to their more illustrious counterparts.

They are normally seen being driven by Formula One hopefuls on the undercard at grand prix weekends, and Schumacher, who has been on the sidelines since the end of 2006, is not thought to have driven one before.

On a busy day in the phoney war as the new season approaches, Lewis Hamilton was on duty for a McLaren team sponsor in London and sounded relaxed and confident about his prospects against Jenson Button, his new team-mate.

"He's got a huge amount of experience of Formula One so hopefully I will learn a lot from him and vice versa," the 2008 world champion said.

Hamilton, who has announced that he and Nicole Scherzinger, the Pussycat Dolls singer, have split up after a two-year relationship, added that he and Button would compete on equal terms.

"I think it's all a level playing field but clearly I have been in the team a little longer than him," he said. "The team is working very hard to get him up to speed as fast as he can."

In Paris, meanwhile, the FIA has disclosed that it is to appeal against the French courts' decision to lift the lifetime ban from motorsport on Flavio Briatore, the former Renault team principal, and the five-year suspension on Pat Symonds, the former technical director, for their part in the 'Crashgate' scandal.

Pending the outcome of the appeal, both bans will be reinstated.

However, Briatore will be able to continue managing drivers until the case is settled.

┬ęThe Times, London