Nico H?lkenberg reckons Williams is in roughly the same ballpark as McLaren-Mercedes, Mercedes Grand Prix and Renault heading into the F1 2010 World Championship campaign - and not far away from the outright front-running pace.

H?lkenberg - rated by some as the next big thing in F1 - led the way on the second day of the final pre-season group test around Barcelona's Circuit de Catalunya on Friday, the second time Williams has topped the timesheets in 2010, after the young German's ultra-experienced team-mate Rubens Barrichello had done likewise in the rain at Jerez a week earlier. The reigning GP2 Series Champion had lapped second-quickest to Red Bull Racing rival Mark Webber on his first day inside the cockpit at Montmel?.

Though initial fears had been expressed that the Cosworth-powered FW32 was not a match for its anticipated midfield competitors, H?lkenberg contends that the car could in actual fact be behind only the pace-setting challengers from Ferrari and Red Bull approaching the curtain-raising Bahrain Grand Prix at Sakhir in just under a fortnight's time.

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"It's difficult," the 22-year-old is quoted as having said by GPUpdate. "I don't think we're so far away; I think Ferrari and Red Bull are just a little bit faster everywhere, then there's a gap to teams like us plus McLaren, Mercedes and Renault - but it's so difficult to read it.

"We have a good baseline with this car and engine - there's good potential in it. We just need to understand how to get everything out of it."

Since last triumphing in a grand prix at the end of 2004 - when Juan-Pablo Montoya emerged victorious in the Interlagos finale in Brazil - Williams has gone into something of a slump, failing to finish any higher than a distant fourth in the constructors' title standings and on two occasions falling as low as eighth. Whether the seeming return of an independent-dominated era in F1 will similarly usher in a competitive comeback for the multiple world championship-winning Grove-based outfit remains to be seen.