Michael Schumacher remains cautious after the positive winter testing program his Mercedes team has enjoyed, saying the lessons of last year still hold.
Twelve months ago, Schumacher and his Mercedes team believed they had a car capable of fighting at the front after topping the final preseason test, only for its W02 to fall well short of those expectations. This time around, Schumacher feels that Mercedes is in much better shape, but he says that he is keeping expectations more in check.
"The car is reliable which is already good," he said. "The first impression was already quite positive. We were driving out of the box with the car and everything went well, so there is potential. We are heading into the season much better prepared than in the past two years, and we can fully concentrate on the development of our car.
"The speed is promising. I hope we can show that in Melbourne. We were able to drive a lot during the tests and therefore learn a lot, too, and we certainly have made a step forward. But I want to wait until after the first races to judge how big this step is and how much it is worth compared to our competitors."
Although some race simulation data over the tests has pointed to the possibility of the team being close to Red Bull Racing, Schumacher believes his rivals remain ahead of the opposition. Speaking about his own chances of winning in Melbourne, Schumacher said: "Victory to me is unlikely. I see Red Bull in front. Behind them it will be tight, and you can be either hero or zero very quickly. It will come down a lot to the ability of how well you will be setting up your car to the respective track."
Asked about why he was playing down his prospects so much, Schumacher said: "Because we have experienced last year that you can be very wrong relying on the data coming out of the winter tests. And because we can see that the field will be very narrow this year. I do not have a clear picture yet. What we can say, though, is that the gap between several teams will not be as big as it was last year."
Schumacher also reiterated that he was in no rush to decide whether or not he would extend his contract with Mercedes, which runs out at the end of this season.
"That's just totally unimportant at the moment – I don't even think about it now," he said. "Now, it is all about focusing and concentrating on understanding our car, so that we will have a positive season. I will certainly not be nailed down now."