Fernando Alonso has admitted that his Ferrari team has a long way to go before it can consider itself a match for the likes of McLaren, Red Bull and Mercedes, but remains optimistic that he can still fight for the 2012 F1 world championship title.
The Spaniard, already a double world champion from his time with the Renault team of 2005-06, heads into this weekend's Chinese Grand Prix at the head of the point standings, but is the first to admit that no-one expected a Ferrari driver to be in such a position with the Scuderia's F2012 so off the pace through the first two rounds. Although an experienced performance in the wet-dry conditions of Malaysia, when the expected frontrunners all hit problems, allowed Alonso to claim a 28th race win and the championship lead, he accepts that he is unlikely to remain in that position when the chequered flag falls in Shanghai.
"It's true that, at the moment, we see some surprises - a very quick Williams in Australia, Sauber doing a fantastic job in this part of the world championship," the 31-year old noted, "But I guess, to fight for the world championship, only the top teams will be there because they have the facilities, they have the budget, the experience of fighting for the championship."
While he named the contenders everyone expects to be in the mix at season's end, Alonso also included his own employer, confident that Ferrari can turn a corner and close the gap after diagnosing what ails the 2012.
"I guess McLaren, Mercedes and, hopefully, Ferrari will be challenging [Red Bull] for the world championship," he told reporters in China, "The title is Ferrari's target every year, [but] the other teams, the resources and capacity they have are maybe more limited compared to the top teams."
With team-mate Felipe Massa suffering another disappointing campaign, it is down to Alonso to help haul Ferrari into the fight for points, and the Spaniard is probably transcending the car's potential, finishing fifth in Melbourne before winning in Malaysia, and making the top ten in qualifying for both Sepang and Shanghai. However, he is under no illusion as to the labours that lie ahead if the Prancing Horse is to become a thoroughbred once more.
"Obviously, we are not stupid, and we know we are quite far behind and need to work," he admitted, "One second is a lot of gap to recover, but the car has some big problems in terms of aerodynamics, which makes us optimistic that we can recover maybe not one second, but a lot of time if we put right a couple of things that are maybe not working in the right place."
Ferrari is expected to bring a major aerodynamic upgrade to the Spanish Grand Prix in mid-May, focusing on a new rear bodywork design that should make better use of the exhaust flow and produce bigger aerodynamic gains.
"This is the first priority," Alonso confirmed, "[Determine] what is not working now, try to make it work and, when we are happy with the car, we will see what is the gap exactly. At the moment, it is too big because the car is not working."
Despite his longer-term optimism, however Alonso remains less confident about his chances of springing another surprise in Shanghai, despite having qualified in the top ten.
“Even if we try to overtake people at the front, we know people from behind will be quicker than us,” he pointed out, aware that the likes of both Romain Grosjean, who failed to set a time in Q3, world champion Sebastian Vettel, who failed to make the final phase of qualifying, and even the two Williams cars are likely to be more competitive on raceday.