Ten days from the curtain-raising Bahrain Grand Prix that will kick F1 2010 well-and-truly into gear, Ross Brawn has conceded that Mercedes Grand Prix is 'not quite as well-prepared as I would like to be' and still struggling for consistency with its MGP W01 contender – but he nevertheless expects the team to be in the mix for victory at Sakhir.
Of the four anticipated title contenders this year – McLaren, Red Bull Racing, Ferrari and Mercedes – it is the latter that has looked the least convincing during pre-season testing, at least in terms of out-and-out raw pace over a single lap. Only twice has the Silver Arrow topped the timesheets – on both occasions in the hands of Nico Rosberg, on the opening day of the first Jerez session and the penultimate day of the final test around Barcelona's Circuit de Catalunya at the weekend.
That apart, results have been mixed, though rivals remain on-guard and fearful not only that the Stuttgart manufacturer has been keeping its powder comparatively dry by focussing predominantly on long runs thus far – but also that a mooted significant upgrade package in Bahrain, including the much-hyped advent of a 'super-diffuser', could propel Rosberg and team-mate and compatriot Michael Schumacher right into contention in the desert kingdom. Brawn, as ever, is keeping his cards close to his chest.
“We are not quite as well-prepared as I would like to be, but we are getting there,” the Englishman told the official F1 website. “It's been quite a difficult winter. I think as it was the first winter with 450 people as opposed to 700, we've felt the loss in a few areas and we haven't got the car working consistently. I think that is one of the challenges we have. When the car is well-balanced it's good, but we are having a few difficulties finding a consistent balance.
“That's a little frustrating, but we are starting to understand what we need to do now and I'm reasonably happy with the car. It's showing good promise. We need to keep up our development speed, and then we should be okay. I think on our high-fuel runs and our race runs, when we get the car right, we are competitive. It's just a little tricky to get the car right. Michael hasn't carried out a proper low-fuel qualifying run, but Nico had a go with lower fuel and it was definitely not bad – he ended the third test day [in Barcelona] with the best overall time.
“The important thing is to check out the brake system, check out reliability and obviously check out handling. There is no point running with 20 kilos of fuel all day and looking fantastic. It is in no way representative of what you have, particularly with this year's new rules, which mean we'll start the races with a lot of fuel. We need to understand what the car is like on low fuel, but also what the car is like on high fuel, so we just keep our heads down and do our work. It will become apparent who's done the best job at the first race.
“I don't think that we are a second away. As I said before, we are not quite where we would like to be yet, but it's a moving target – that's the nature of our business. The team that is leading is always the target for everyone else, and there is only one team that can lead – all the rest have to play catch-up. We go through phases of being the leader and phases of being the ones trying to catch up. At the moment we've probably got more catching up to do, but I am not overly concerned.
“We have an update for Bahrain. We decided not to bring it to Barcelona, but to leave it until the last moment. We've learnt to assess and run pieces without testing them. That's crucial when you have seasons without testing, as you have to bring upgrades to races during the year. In Barcelona we had little bits and pieces, but the major upgrade will be introduced in Bahrain.”
The 55-year-old acknowledged that the recruitment of comeback king Schumacher – making a sensational return to active competition some three years on from his 'retirement' from the top flight, and seeking an extraordinary eighth drivers' world championship crown to justify his decision as he renews arguably the most successful working relationship in F1 history – was 'a risk', but he insists it was 'a risk we were both happy to take, exciting to do and nobody has regretted it for a single moment'.