Whilst insisting that 'the podium is still within reach' in Sunday's Chinese Grand Prix from the third row of the starting grid, double F1 World Champion Fernando Alonso has conceded that Mercedes Grand Prix's apparent step forward in form in Shanghai whilst Ferrari has conversely stood still has only rendered the Scuderia's task 'even more difficult'.

Having struggled in qualifying in the opening two outings of F1 2011 in Australia and Malaysia - and with no major updates for China - Ferrari always anticipated an uphill struggle this weekend, and the 1.4-second deficit separating Alonso from pole-sitter and runaway early world championship leader Sebastian Vettel at the end of Q3 in Shanghai was virtually identical to the gap seen in Melbourne last month. It was, phlegmatically mused the Spaniard, about as much as could have been hoped for.

"I had not expected much more than this from qualifying," reflected the 29-year-old, a former Chinese Grand Prix-winner. "Fifth and sixth places represent the maximum we can aspire to in our current situation. We already knew all about Red Bull and McLaren, but here we saw an improvement from Mercedes, so the situation is now even more difficult.

"We are trying to improve our performance; we are a great team, and we know how to react. Yesterday, we tried some new components, but it is still too early to use them in a race - we hope to make a significant step forward in Turkey. I would give the team ten-out-of-ten for how they managed qualifying over these first three races - it is always very difficult to find the compromise between the need to take risks and being prudent, and we have already seen mistakes costing some drivers dear in these three sessions. At the moment we should not be trying anything clever, instead keeping things simple.

"I think the podium is still within our reach. This year there are more variables, like the tyre degradation and the use of the moveable rear wing, which come into play during the race, as we have seen in the first two grands prix. It could be a bit warmer tomorrow than today, so we will see if that changes anything, although I don't expect it to. Strategy will be very important in determining the final result."

Team-mate Felipe Massa backed Alonso up well in sixth place in the sister scarlet machine, the Brazilian displaying better form so far this weekend at just a whisker adrift in the performance stakes. He, too, asserted that Ferrari's first rostrum of the campaign - and first, indeed, since the Brazilian Grand Prix at Interlagos last November - cannot be discounted come race day in Shanghai.

"It went a little bit better than in Malaysia, but we are still behind," acknowledged the 2008 world championship runner-up, twice a podium-finisher in China. "Vettel's performance is not surprising, whereas [Mark] Webber's definitely is. The McLarens are also quicker than us, and Mercedes has improved and will be a very tough competitor tomorrow in the race.

"I really hope we will see a repeat of the Malaysian situation with a performance jump from qualifying to the race; if that is the case, then a podium might not be out-of-reach. The track has improved a lot compared to yesterday - there is more grip and the cars slide less, thus using the tyres less and that will be a factor to take into consideration when working out the ideal strategy."

Team principal Stefano Domenicali underlined that as it awaits the upgrade package in Istanbul, Ferrari must continue to exploit the maximum of the F150? Italia's potential and make the best of what is currently a bad situation indeed by the Prancing Horse's traditionally high standards.

"First of all, on behalf of the whole team, I want to express our delight at the positive progress in the condition of Paolo Santarsiero, one of our mechanics who fell ill on Thursday with an aneurism in his head and was subsequently operated on at the Rui Jin hospital in Shanghai," the Italian revealed. "I wish to thank the entire medical team who acted so promptly and efficiently in carrying out the procedure. Incidents like this make one realise what the priorities really are in life and put everything else into perspective.

"Having said that, we are here to race and to try and be the best in our sport but, at the moment, we are not there. Here, we saw gaps similar to the first two qualifying sessions of the year, and we could not have expected anything different, given that our car is practically unchanged. We definitely can't be happy about it, but we must try to close the gap and do our utmost in this very difficult period. In Australia and Malaysia we saw that our race pace is not bad compared to the others, apart from that of the championship leader, so we will see what happens here."

"Going into qualifying, I would have said that the third row was the best we could aspire to because there are at least two cars that so far have proved to be quicker than ours," echoed assistant technical director and head of racetrack engineering, Pat Fry. "Today we saw that the Mercedes has also made a step forward and, honestly, we did not have sufficient pace to get ahead of it and we made the most of the opportunity that presented itself with Webber being eliminated in Q1.

"With both Felipe and Fernando, we used the same programme in terms of tyre management and the series of runs; with our current level of performance, we have to maintain a realistic and modest approach because we have seen that taking risks does not pay off. Tomorrow's race will be very long and difficult, and we will try to make the most of every opportunity."