With pre-season testing now over, many F1 insiders are still struggling to determine exactly where every team sits in the pecking order in terms of raw pace.

The finer details of what strategies, set-ups, programmes, tyre compounds and fuel loads each outfit was running at various stages over the four tests are closely guarded secrets, and a variety of drivers and teams have taken turns gracing the top of the testing timesheets at Valencia, Jerez and Barcelona.

The teams have now taken it upon themselves to big note their prospects ahead of the season-opening Australian Grand Prix. While some might be genuine with their claims, others could simply be putting the wind up their rivals and those close to the sport…

Four outfits that have been more vocal about their 2011 prospects are among those who may – perhaps – have felt that they performed below their expectations last season: Mercedes GP, Williams, Sauber and Team Lotus.

After a disappointing championship defence under their new German owners last year, Mercedes GP looked set for a similar repeat if their early testing results were anything to go by. But a series of aggressive upgrades has seemingly boosted the performance of the W02 chassis, and it resulted in Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg respectively ending on top of the timesheets in the final two days of winter testing.

The upswing in form has seen both drivers exude more confidence ahead of the Australian Grand Prix, and both believe that the silver car will feature more regularly at the front of the field.

“We are going in the right direction. Definitely,” Schumacher told the SID news agency in an interview. “We should be in a good position this year … With the car we will be able to fight for the top places, and that is good news. The team did a great job.

“I am convinced that Mercedes will become a championship contender,” he added.

  Scumacher believes the Mercedes GP W02 can be a frontrunner
Schumacher: ‘The W02 will be able to fight for top places … the team has done a great job.’

“The team has made a lot of progress, so it has been great to see how much progress has come on,” Rosberg said at the end of pre-season testing, after topping the timesheets on a rain-hit final day of testing.

“We are on the up for sure,” he added. “It has been great to see how the team turned things around and pushed on with the new upgrades and everything.

Williams will also be looking to improve on its results from last year, in spite of a difficult off-season that has seen the loss of several key sponsors, a change in its driver line-up, and the part floatation of its shareholding on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange.

But, in the background, the team has been steadily working on its FW33 challenger, which features an in-house developed battery-powered KERS unit, the smallest gearbox in the field and a tightly-packaged rear-end treatment.

Solid results in pre-season testing have given the sport’s most experienced driver, Rubens Barrichello, a positive frame of mind as he enters his second season with the team.

Barrichello believed the FW33 is a regular points contender
Barrichello: ‘Q3 appearances and top-ten finishes are achievable in 2011 with the FW33.’

“I know how optimistic I am and I know how much I would love to say that we will do really well, but what I will say is that I want to be in Q3 and to score points,” he is quoted as saying in an interview.

“I think that is achievable. We are better on performance than last year,” he added, having helped take sixth in the Constructors’ Standings last year.

Meanwhile, at Sauber, the team’s technical director James Key is using more moderate language when discussing the likely prospects of the first car he has designed for the Swiss outfit, in declaring that the team has been “honest” about its pace during winter testing.

The C30 showed strong pace at the hands of Kamui Kobayashi and Sergio Pérez, and prompted several figures in the sport and media to speculate that the team may have been showboating in a manner similar to which it did last year. In the lead up to the 2010 season, the newly re-formed team – fresh from its sell-off by previous owners BMW – was rapid in pre-season testing and substantially off the pace in the first half of the season, which prompted many to suggest it had been running underweight.

This year’s form for the C30 has understandably prompted similar suggestions, but Key insists that the pace of the car is genuine, although he did admit that it will only truly know when the season gets underway in Melbourne.

The new Sauber C30 has looked impressive, but is it running light?
Sauber ‘has been honest’ in testing, says Key

“Performance is very difficult to judge because performance ultimately is relative to the competition,” Key told AUTOSPORT.

“I think we have been quite honest with the way we have been testing, and ran lower fuel levels only on the last two days in Barcelona, which gave us a little bit more of an idea of where the car is.”

He added: “It is really difficult to judge. I think we are satisfied we have made the sort of progress we wanted to make over last year’s car in some specific areas.”

And further down the field, those inside Team Lotus are also upbeat about the team’s prospects as it enters its second season of full competition, with Jarno Trulli claiming the new T128 challenger is a “huge” step ahead of its very conservative T127 predecessor.

Having switched to a Renault engine in the off-season as well as securing the use of Red Bull’s rear end, suspension, gearbox and hydraulics units, the team has an excellent baseline on which to improve and develop the Mike Gascoyne designed car.

“We have one of the best rear ends you can have in the paddock, because the gearbox is amazing, as well as the engine,” Trulli told AUTOSPORT. “Everything fits perfectly. The car looks good, and it looks quick as well.

“If I have to compare to last year, it’s day and night. It’s a huge step forward, and everybody has been working really hard.

  Lotus T128
Is the new Lotus T128 going to move up the grid? Jarno Trulli certainly thinks so…

“I think they’ve done great things over the winter time, catching up with all the new rules, and with all the new bits,” he added.

Now, such talk always makes for interesting reading, but – as they say – the recipe might be good, but the proof will be in the eating.

Ultimately, it’s unlikely we will actually know the true pace of the entire grid until qualifying at the Australian Grand Prix, for only then will we truly see everyone running in the same conditions and on the same fuel load.

It’s going to be fascinating to watch.

[Original images via LAT and Sutton Images]

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Richard Bailey

Founder & Chief Editor at MotorsportM8
Hasn't missed a Grand Prix since 1989. Has a soft spot for Minardi. Tattooed with 35+ Grand Prix circuits.