While McLaren's lack of performance and, latterly, Brawn GP's reign at the front have caught the pre-season headlines in Formula One, Panasonic Toyota Racing has shown itself to be one of the more consistent testing performers, prompting the belief that it may be time for the team to launch its strongest challenge yet.

Senior general manager in charge of chassis, Pascal Vasselon, certainly sees no reason why that form can't continue into round one and beyond, confident that, despite the limits imposed on testing - by both the rulebook and inclement conditions in Bahrain - the TF109 will be a match for most.

"We can only be satisfied with what has happened so far with the TF109," he insisted, "Our winter season programme went extremely well in terms of reliability and mileage. We have been able to complete a huge number of laps before the race season starts - in fact, we are very close to what we did last year with two cars - despite the restrictions we have this season.

"We have achieved around 10,000km, but it could have been better because we had two disturbed test sessions - in Portugal, when we spent a complete day in the pits, and in Bahrain, where two days were disrupted by a sandstorm. But the beauty of Bahrain is that, when you have one valid test day, the track is workable from 8am to 5.30pm without interruption. It is suitable for testing for much longer than European tracks, where you have to wait until mid-morning for reasonable track temperatures and then, in the late afternoon, the temperature drops. We came back from Bahrain with no regrets.

"In terms of reliability, we are very happy - even if we are working hard to fix some small issues, as is always the case with a new car. In terms of performance as well, we are satisfied, although obviously we are looking forward to seeing the pecking order when the racing starts. However, we have a quiet confidence we should be able to fight close to the front at the beginning of the season."

Vasselon's confidence is mirrored by his two drivers, with Jarno Trulli and Timo Glock happy with the much-changed 2009-spec car.

"The drivers have given very positive feedback, and are pleased with the drivability of this year's car, which they say is very easy to drive, very forgiving," he reported, "Part of this is a consequence of the regulations, which make this car less sensitive to disturbance, but part of it is also because our aerodynamicists have done a good job at making the aero package less sensitive to wind and ride height."

The 2008 campaign provided an upswing on Toyota's rollercoaster existence in Formula One, but still could not provide the breakthrough victory that many believed would be necessary to keep the team in the top flight during the economic downturn. However, the team survives with the backing of its Japanese paymasters, and Vasselon is optimistic that the TF109 can pick up where last year's car left off.

"The TF108 had no weakness, there was no problem to cure, but the bottom line was that we were missing some raw performance," he revealed, "We were reasonably competitive at the start of the season, and sustained a good development rate which kept us regularly in the points and around the podium. Then, towards the end of the season, we were really able to fight at the front and Sao Paulo was a good example when Jarno qualified second with more fuel than most drivers around him. Brazil was probably our best race last year in terms of raw speed because we were really on the pace of the winning cars."

Despite the confidence heading to Melbourne, however, Vasselon insists that no-one at Toyota's Cologne base will be lured into a false sense of security of the TF109 performs as hoped in the opening race of the year.

"In pre-season, everyone says we have to wait until Australia to understand where each team is, but really Melbourne is not totally representative," he admitted, "Historically, Melbourne doesn't give a true picture of the hierarchy because it has a very specific track layout and asphalt. From a technical point of view, we will assess our competitiveness after the first three races. That is when we know where we are and when we will make decisions about TF109 development and the development of the 2010 car."



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