Norbert Haug has cautioned that Mercedes Grand Prix is unlikely to vie for the very leading positions in the first few races of the F1 2010 World Championship campaign - but the Stuttgart manufacturer's motorsport vice-president warned the team's rivals that the three-pointed star 'will definitely show up afterwards'.

The defending double world champions - in the erstwhile guise of Brawn GP, before Mercedes took over the Brackley-based outfit - have appeared to be the furthest from the pace of the four anticipated title contenders during pre-season testing, regularly giving best to rivals Ferrari, McLaren-Mercedes and Red Bull Racing.

Both outsiders and the team itself have opined that victory in the curtain-raising Bahrain Grand Prix at Sakhir this coming weekend might therefore be an impossibly tall order - notwithstanding a significant upgrade package set to see the light of day in the desert kingdom, and the indisputable driving talents of a certain Michael Schumacher behind the steering wheel of one of the two Silver Arrows. Haug clearly concurs.

"In my opinion, we will not challenge for the podium in the first few races," the German told Sunday's Frankfurter Allgemeinen Zeitung newspaper, "but we will definitely show up afterwards."

"The Bahrain Grand Prix marks the beginning of a new era for Mercedes-Benz," the 57-year-old added. "Fifty-five years after the last race of the Silver Arrows works team, Mercedes GP Petronas will continue this tradition.

"Judging our competitiveness for the first couple of races, my impression is that we are not quite where we want to be and I would not see our team in the role of favourites. Having said that, I am fully convinced that the whole team and our drivers Nico [Rosberg] and Michael are fully prepared to get on top of our job and fulfil our targets - which are winning races and fighting for world championships."

"Everyone at Mercedes GP Petronas is proud to be representing the rich motorsport pedigree of Mercedes-Benz as we start the season as the first Mercedes works team for over half a century," agreed team principal Ross Brawn. "In addition, knowing that we go into the new season as the reigning world champions gives the team confidence and a fierce pride to defend our position.

"However, this is a new season and a new challenge. We had a strong pre-season testing programme with the MGP W01, but we have not quite reached the level of preparation that we would have liked prior to Bahrain. The car shows promise and we have a strong development programme planned for the season, but there is a lot of hard work ahead to ensure that we will be in the fight for the title.

"I am very pleased with how our new drivers Michael and Nico have settled into the team and developed a close working relationship. They have really pushed the development of the car throughout testing, and they will push each other to achieve better results on the race track. This season should be a fantastic one for the fans, with so many talented drivers competing and what is likely to be a very close fight for the title between the top teams - and that can only be good for our sport."

That rivalry between countrymen Schumacher and Rosberg, indeed, will be fascinating to watch, with both men facing a loss of reputation should they come off worse. For the younger German, it is an opportunity to prove that he can take on and beat the most successful driver the sport has ever known, whilst his older compatriot is clearly revved up to demonstrate that age shall not wither and that at 41 and following three years away from the grand prix grid, he can still rule the roost.

Rosberg has already hinted that when it comes to data-sharing, 'there are some things you keep for yourself', and Schumacher's long-time manager Willi Weber has conceded that the stakes are incredibly high - insisting that the seven-time world champion and 91-time grand prix-winner 'absolutely' must emerge on top in the pair's eagerly-anticipated internecine duel.

"The first thing you need to do as a racing driver is to get a grip on your team-mate," Weber told Der Taggespiegel. "For Michael, in the first two or three races this could be difficult, but once everything is back to his liking, I really cannot see why Michael cannot beat him - can, must."

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