Mercedes Grand Prix can be 'the big surprise' of the F1 2011 World Championship campaign, forecasts Andy Soucek - as Michael Schumacher reveals his 'confidence' that the team will be able to successfully compete for podium finishes and perhaps even victories over the coming months.

Following a troubled birth, the new MGP W02 appeared to take a quantum leap forward by dint of a significant upgrade package brought to the final pre-season group test in Barcelona last week - enabling Schumacher to lead the way on the penultimate day and overall, with team-mate and compatriot Nico Rosberg similarly closing out proceedings on top a day later.

That has re-injected an aura of optimism into the Brackley-based outfit, which is under pressure to perform and deliver results this year, after parent company Mercedes received little on-track return for its considerable investment in the team in 2010.

"I see [the title battle being] between the two Red Bulls and [Fernando] Alonso, but watch out for Mercedes, who seem likely to be the big surprise," mused former FIA Formula Two Champion Soucek, speaking to Spanish newspaper Marca - and record-breaking seven-time F1 World Champion Schumacher seems to concur.

"As a driver, you obviously hope for a good step forward and I think this is what we have achieved," reflected the 42-year-old. "I am confident that we can compete for podium finishes, and I am hopeful we can fight for victories in some of the races. Saying that, we will only see the truth once the season gets underway, so I can hardly wait to go to Melbourne to finally see what the real picture is."

Meanwhile, Soucek has explained that after quitting his position as Virgin Racing test and reserve driver last summer due to a complete lack of running, he would only return to such a role if it was for one of the leading contenders.

"Frankly, I would not do it again if it was not with a top team," the 25-year-old confessed. "The testing is too limited, and actually you don't even get in the car."