Fernando Alonso is confident that Ferrari will be able to fight for this year's F1 world championship should the new F138 prove to be even a small improvement over its predecessor.

The Spaniard came within three points of denying Sebastian Vettel a title hat-trick in 2012, but had to dig deep to remain in contention to the final round. Reliability and dogged determination paid of early in the year as, after a dire first test for the F2012, Alonso opened up a 40-point advantage by the German GP, including wins in Malaysia and Valencia. A first corner exit in Belgium, however, began to eat into the gap and, when Alonso tangled with Kimi Raikkonen on the run to turn one at Suzuka, Vettel was able to take control.

Having opted to skip the opening test of 2013 in order to concentrate on preparing himself mentally and physically for the year ahead, Alonso got his first taste of the F138 at the Circuit de Catalunya on Tuesday (19 February), immediately declaring it a major advance of where the Scuderia had been a year ago.

The 31-year old completed 110 laps of the Barcelona venue, finishing third on the timesheets behind Raikkonen and pacesetter Nico Rosberg, but insisted that he needed to be cautious about expecting too much too soon.

"The rules haven't changed much, [and that] doesn't trigger my optimism," he told the official F1 website, "We need to improve the car a lot compared to last year. At the end of the year, we were quite far from Red Bull and McLaren. We've been in a group with Force India, behind Lotus and Sauber, and we cannot belong to this group - we know that.

"We need to be in the group of the leaders and, for this, we need to do a good job this winter. We are trying some parts on the car, we will try more at the last test and more will arrive in Australia, so the Friday in Australia will also be crucial.

"For sure, we need to arrive in a better position than we finished [2012]. Our competitors are doing a pretty good job so Australia will be very interesting. The only quantum of optimism that I have for 2013 is that I fought for the championship last year with a car that was two seconds off the pace in winter. In the first four races, we had finishes of P9 in China and P7 in Bahrain and, even with all those problems with the car, we were fighting for the world championship. If we can overcome our bad start of 2012, and think positive, there is no reason for us not to fight for the championship again this year if we only improve the car a bit."

If that all sounds a little negative, Alonso is quick to point out that the car he found in Barcelona this week was already a vast improvement over the 2012 machine.

"What I said is that the feeling of the car is similar to last year as there haven't been big changes, but I didn't say anything of the range of things that we've found on our route to improve the car," he explained, "I am sure that we will be strong in Australia.

"We need to improve from where we were last year because obviously it was not enough - we finished second and we want to finish first. So our immediate goal to improve in the first half of the year shouldn't be that difficult. We are relatively confident.

"The car was more or less what I expected. It is a continuation of the car from Brazil 2012, let's say. It is a very similar feeling - I have the same seat, the same pedals, the same everything, so when you jump into the car more-or-less the performance should be the same as it was in Brazil. In the next couple of days, a lot of work is waiting for us with the tyres, the aerodynamics, with some new components, and of course we have to focus on doing a lot of mileage - we need to put a good number of laps into this test to prove that the car is strong enough to race. "