The Sauber challenger again flatters to deceiveThis is the second successive season that Sauber have set table-topping testing times — but with that likely to have been a glory run again, it looks set to be another season of hard graft for the Swiss minnows.
Last year's Sauber looked like a dark horse when it fired to the top of the testing times but in Australia it soon became clear that this was a low-fuel run to put their name in the headlines rather than a genuine demonstration of their actual potential.
This year, the team has had similar testing success and once again it is highly likely the outcome in Australia will follow the backwards trend from 2011.
The midfield is the natural home of this small team, which became independent again in 2010 after manufacturer BMW stepped out of the sport. And with apparently few commercial gains between this year and last, simply maintaining position will be a big challenge this year.
The most important factor in Sauber's season will be how their new car reacts with the new batch of Pirelli tyres.
Last year, they had a trump card in that their car was extremely kind on tyres — as demonstrated by Kamui Kobayashi's ability to go through the entire opening grand prix with just the one mandatory pit stop.
That gave them a significant advantage in opening a wider range of options for race strategy — but the very thing that proved a benefit in long runs worked against them in single-lap performance, because the car struggled to get temperature into the tyres and could not get quickly up to speed.
They have made significant efforts this season to try to get a better balance between the two.
The suspension has undergone a complete re-design, to provide set-up flexibility that allows the team a greater set of modification routes, particularly for qualifying.
But the danger — and possible indication from testing — is that this has gone too far and while it has succeeded in improving the tyre turn-on it has had negative impact on its long-run durability.
Sauber has always struggled with development pace, traditionally hitting the ground running only to be caught and passed by their rivals as the season wears on.
Last year, encouraged by a good start to the season, they over-pushed in the early stages, splurging too much of their available funds which led to a strong points score being overhauled in the second half of the season — they scored 35 points in the first 10 races then just nine in the last nine events.
In a tight midfield group, Sauber ended up just three points ahead of Toro Rosso and 25 behind Force India. The battle between those three is likely to be joined by Williams this year while if Caterham live up to their promise they should also start nipping at their heels.
This year, then, every scrap of performance is critical and success for Sauber will rest on a commitment to a structured development programme that focuses on small and often.
The departure of former technical chief James Key sees the team adopt a rather unusual new structure — with no technical director brought in to fill Key's role.
Chief designer Matt Morris will now be one of the key men in terms of taking things forward — but without an influx of budget, there is little to suggest they will be able to make a major jump.
So unless their testing form does represent a surprise step up in performance rather than a glory run, the best they can hope for is to spread their budget carefully across the year and tread water once again.