On the eve of the second outing of the F1 2011 World Championship campaign in Kuala Lumpur this weekend, Fernando Alonso is adamant that a 'stronger' Ferrari can successfully do battle for glory this season – even if for the moment, at least, he acknowledges that 'Red Bull are as dominant as they were in 2010'.
During winter testing, the general perception was that it was pretty much nip-and-tuck between Red Bull Racing and Ferrari, with the former looking to have the edge in terms of outright pace, but the latter countering with nigh-on bulletproof reliability. Imagine the surprise, then, when in the curtain-raising Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne a fortnight ago, Alonso qualified a gaping 1.4 seconds shy of defending F1 World Champion Sebastian Vettel, and took the chequered flag more than half-a-minute adrift of the German in a distant fourth place.
Worse still, the Prancing Horse found itself outpaced by a resurgent McLaren-Mercedes and – in the race, at least – Lotus Renault GP. It was far from the start to the season that Alonso – who so agonisingly missed out on a third drivers' crown in last year's Abu Dhabi finale as the result of a tactical error – had anticipated, and the lack of performance palpably caught the Scuderia off-guard.
The Spaniard, however, is quick to point out that due to its very distinct characteristics, the Albert Park Street Circuit is rarely an entirely accurate barometer of the pecking order in the top flight, and he is keen to reserve judgement upon the true state of affairs until Sunday's Malaysian Grand Prix at Sepang, a race in which he has triumphed on two previous occasions.
Stirred into action by the crushing disappointment of Abu Dhabi and the shock of finding itself so far from where it had expected to be Down Under, Alonso concedes that Ferrari 'needs a good weekend' in Kuala Lumpur – but he is confident that both he and the team can deliver.
“I didn't give it too much time, to be honest,” the 29-year-old reflected, speaking to BBC Sport about his 2010 near-miss. “It was a disappointing race for us in Abu Dhabi; it was very sad, we were close to the title but once the race was finished it was time to think about the next challenge – and that was the 2011 championship. We have reinforced some areas of the team where we discovered we were weak compared to our competitors – trackside we had to make some improvements, and strategy-wise we were also down.
“In Australia, we were not as quick as we expected; we were expecting a better result. We were hoping to fight for pole position and victory, but we were not anywhere near [able] to fight with Red Bull. We were a little bit surprised by our pace, [and] we have to confirm this in the next two or three races, if we really are that [far] behind. In winter testing we were much closer to Red Bull, so hopefully Australia was a strange race.
“We think we can do good things with this car, [but] we saw in Australia it was not enough to fight for victory – we need to work. We are Ferrari – people expect a lot of us. It's good motivation, but also extra pressure. When you [are] third or fourth, it seems a disaster but I don't agree too much. It is not a bad result after what we saw in Australia. We need to be calm and do our job – there are 18 races ahead of us, and the championship is very long.
“If we make a mistake, we know how strong our competitors are. We respect them a lot – fighting with McLaren and Red Bull is not easy at all – but that is also a nice challenge for everyone here, and we don't fear anyone. We respect everyone, but we think that if we do things right and if we [give] 100 per cent, we can be there – that's our aim and our target.
“At the moment, Red Bull are as dominant as they were in 2010 – they are still the main challenge – but the team (Ferrari) is stronger this year. If it is enough to win titles, we will see in November, but I feel much happier and [more] confident than last year. We are strong enough to fight for the championship.”