As he approaches the beginning of the defence of his hard-fought drivers' world championship crown in Bahrain in a week's time, Jenson Button has reflected that there are several cars potentially capable of pulling a super-quick lap time out of the bag come qualifying in F1 2010 - but he argues that only a handful will be able to repeat that feat on race day and maintain a flat-out pace of development all the way throughout the campaign.

Pre-season testing in the top flight is famously hard to accurately read, and in 2010 that difficulty has become even more pronounced, with the ban on refuelling necessitating fuel tanks twice the size of before - and therefore by extension, producing even greater discrepancies in lap time between those running on full tanks and those undertaking low-fuel qualifying-style runs. The trick is in working out who has been doing precisely what.

Whilst firm answers will only be forthcoming in Sakhir, conventional wisdom goes that Ferrari, Red Bull Racing, Button's McLaren-Mercedes team and the British star's erstwhile employer Mercedes Grand Prix - formerly Brawn GP - will steal an early advantage.

Team-mate and title-winning predecessor Lewis Hamilton has warned that Sauber and Force India could similarly sneak in on the act [see separate story - click here] off the back of some surprising testing exploits, but Button suggests that whilst the pretenders to F1's 'big four' might be able to do some damage over a single lap, when it comes to tyre-management over a long race distance, they will fade away again into the background.

Either way, the 30-year-old is confident that McLaren - which endured a catastrophic start to 2009, with a car that began proceedings the best part of three seconds shy of the leading pace and took half a season to adequately play catch-up - is in the ballpark and ready to do battle.

"I'm hoping the chances are good," he told reporters during a special Vodafone McLaren-Mercedes phone-in session, when asked how optimistic he is about being able to make it back-to-back title glories this year. "In testing the car has been running very reliably, which is always important heading into a long season. The last day I drove at the test [in Barcelona] we had a new aero package on the car, which worked well; I didn't really get a lot of time with it because it was wet in the morning, but I did a race run and some lower-fuel runs in the afternoon and everything was working very well.

"I'm happy with the way the car feels, but I still feel there is room for improvement. At Jerez, I think Lewis and myself both found [the long-run performance drop-off from the tyres] reasonably difficult, and I think it was because it was so cold and that made it difficult to get the tyres working. In Barcelona, on my run on the Saturday it was still quite difficult, because it had rained that morning and spread marbles all over the circuit; the car was quite loose at the rear, but I overtook Rubens [Barrichello] twice, I overtook Nico [Rosberg], I overtook [Vitaly] Petrov, I overtook a lot of people on my long run, so the pace was obviously good.

"Compared to the Ferrari, if you look at the race distance we did we came out on top, but you don't exactly know what they're doing. The pace seems good, and Lewis the following day was quick and the consistency seemed to be good when the circuit was in better nick. They tried a few of the ideas that we'd had the previous day, and he seemed reasonably happy with the car.

"Keeping the tyres in good condition is important; it seems that a lot of cars can be quick over one lap, looking at how close the times have been, but getting the tyres to work over a race distance is obviously more difficult. To see the times coming down throughout the stint on Lewis' run was very positive, because if you've got a car that's working the tyres too hard, they're going to level out or might even go off.

"I'm happy with the consistency, and we go to Bahrain with a package that I feel is going to be competitive, because the balance is good and the reliability is good - we just don't know how quick we're going to be compared to the Ferraris or Red Bulls or Mercedes' yet. Those are the main ones, really; I think a couple of other teams have built cars that are competitive at the moment, but I don't think they will be as good with updates as probably those four teams. I think Bahrain is going to be a great race, and a fantastic way to start the season with so many teams and drivers that are competitive."

That much appears indisputable, with no fewer than four world champions in the field - Button, Hamilton, returning grand prix legend Michael Schumacher at Mercedes and Fernando Alonso at Ferrari - and little, seemingly, to choose between them. Not for many, many years has an F1 season been quite so tough to predict - and that is only serving to further heighten the ever-escalating tension and excitement factor.

"Last year I was very excited," seven-time grand prix-winner Button recollected in conclusion. "I had a car that we all knew was capable of getting to the first race and winning, after the position we'd been in, where we didn't even think we'd be on the grid. That was pretty exciting arriving in Melbourne, but this year I am more excited because of the competitiveness of the top four teams - plus Sauber and Williams - and having Michael back, which I think is great for the sport and I'm looking forward to going head-to-head with him. There's also having Lewis as a team-mate - because he's an exceptional driver and that's a really exciting challenge for me, working with Lewis and fighting it out with him on the circuit - and Fernando in a Ferrari.

"There's so much change this year, and it's all positive for the sport. Last year we probably had some negative publicity - which was more away from the circuit than the actual racing itself - but this year so far I would say the publicity that we've had has been fantastic, because of the world champions all being in competitive cars and new teams coming in. This is great for F1, and hopefully it's going to get more fans interested in the sport. I can't wait for the first race! I'm very, very excited and I think it's going to be a very special season."


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