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.