Despite encouraging results from the final days of pre-season testing in Barcelona, seven-time F1 world champion Michael Schumacher insists that his Mercedes GP team is unlikely to start the 2011 season on top.
The Brackley-based team has struggled throughout its winter preparations - despite Schumacher topping the times for a day at Jerez - and relied heavily on a raft of upgrades to haul itself back onto the pace as the pre-season wrapped up at the Circuit de Catalunya over the weekend. However, even though the 42-year old posted the fastest time of the penultimate day - and team-mate Nico Rosberg ended a sodden Saturday on top - he is writing off Mercedes' chances of a surprise when the season finally gets underway in Melbourne in two weeks' time.
"We have made a lot of progress with the car, so I'm quite happy," he told journalists during the test, "Having concluded all our reliability work at the last test, we're now concentrating on setting up the car, fine-tuning, understanding it down to the last detail. Right now, we are not concerned with our reliability - we have had some issues, but that is why you go testing - and we are on the progress curve like we want to be.
"I guess we're not quite in a position [to win], but then I wasn't expecting to be in this position right now. However, I know where we are, and we are working very well."
"All I can say is that we finally found the right balance and the aerodynamic package works," he added, speaking to Spanish newspaper El Pais
. "As for whether we will be in front in Australia, I don't know."
Schumacher's comments echo those made pre-Barcelona by both team principal Ross Brawn and CEO Nick Fry, who insisted that the initial tests had seen a very basic version of the WO2 being run-in by Schumacher and Rosberg, with the package of updates always scheduled to appear in Barcelona. Fry, in particular, dismissed speculation that the team was in 'panic mode' following the disappointing results it achieved in the Valencia, Jerez and first Barcelona tests, and last week's improved performance appears to have confirmed that Mercedes is progressing as planned.
Schumacher, in line with the majority of observers, believes that Red Bull will start the season as the team to beat, and admits that Mercedes' aim for the opening few races will be to top the list of challengers, despite the impressive pre-season form shown by the likes of Ferrari and Lotus Renault.
"We clearly know Red Bull are very strong and are the team you have to look at," he confirmed, "But the season is long and there is a big question mark as to who is coming up behind. I hope we play a sufficient role in that."