Pedro de la Rosa and Sauber have been rapid throughout winter testing, and look set to start 2010 as a dark horse combination for surprise results.
After today's session at Barcelona, de la Rosa talked about progress so far, his state of readiness for returning to racing, and the impact of his comeback on his role as chairman of the Grand Prix Drivers' Association. AUTOSPORT was there to hear from him.
Q. What did you learn today?
Pedro de la Rosa: Well, first of all it was dry and that helped a lot. We went through all the different rear wings that we have available for Bahrain. That was the main objective - to go through it step by step, to understand each rear wing. We have some more work to do on the aero side tomorrow, but for me the main objective will be to go through a grand prix in preparation for Bahrain.
It is my last test day, and it must be dry! That is the plan. We could have done with a few more laps today but the changes took quite a lot of time, so we didn't go through all the aero tests we wanted. But it was a good day - it was dry, which was a massive step forward from Jerez.
Q. Nico Rosberg said earlier today that he expects a lot of improvements to come for his car in Bahrain. How much of a step will BMW Sauber take?
PdlR: We have different steps as well. There is no time to have everything ready for tomorrow before Bahrain - even though you have two weeks to work in the windtunnel. There are always new parts that will come and are being manufactured. It is the same for everyone - but the point is that the cars that will be testing this week will never be the same as Bahrain, that is for sure. But that is normal.
Q. What shape do you think you are in, because the Sauber has looked good on both short and long runs?
PdlR: I don't know! I really don't know where we are, compared to all the other teams. There is such a scatter of lap times and long runs, it is very difficult for me to judge. I think we are quite competitive, but let's wait. I think the next few days we will see more - we will see a lot of people practising qualifying runs. I think on the long runs we are pretty competitive.
Q. Will you do a qualifying run as well?
PdlR: It is not decided yet, but I will push for that. I want to practice, I want to do as much running as possible in race trim - race and qualifying trim. But that is just for learning. At the moment we have been learning about the tyres, the car and the aero package, and I think now is the time for me to learn about race preparation.
Q. How ready do you feel and how better prepared do you feel heading into your first race with Sauber compared to when you were last called up by McLaren?
PdlR: Well, I feel I am in a better shape generally because I have had the chance to gradually build up for the Bahrain Grand Prix. So I am comfortable in the car. At the first test in the car, I was not fully comfortable. The first time there, testing at a low speed track, I felt a little bit rusty - but today I felt very good. And in the second test in Jerez I felt very good as well. So I think now, I am in good shape - physically strong, and mentally I have had more time to prepare. So I am okay.
Q. You've had a very reliable car so far. How much have you been able to improve the car from the first test in Valencia up until now?
PdlR: Well, we've introduced lots of changes on the aero side. I would not say we have made massive steps, but good steps - especially in downforce levels - from Valencia to here. But like everyone, that is normal. There is a launch spec car, and it is never the same as one month later when it is 30 per cent new.
Q. The track was very green today, but how were the tyres?
PdlR: We only tried the 086, which is the standard running tyre - the soft - because we were doing aero tests and didn't want to mix the compounds basically. So, I felt that the 086 was too soft - especially in the morning when the track was green. There were a lot of teams complaining, ourselves included, of graining.
The track this morning was extremely difficult and then it gradually rubbered in. By the end of the day it was a lot better for testing purposes. But, tomorrow, we have different compounds available for Bridgestone - we have the medium, we have the super soft, so it is good to explore, and good to learn.
Q. What did you make of the Red Bull pace today then considering how green the track was?
PdlR: It was impressive...
Q. Scary? Or just impressive?
PdlR: Scary, no. If you look at their long run pace, it was quite scary as well - but for them! It was scary for them!
Q. This year is the first time that Lewis Hamilton will share a team with a world champion since Fernando Alonso. How do you think his relationship with Jenson Button will get on?
PdlR: I think they will get on very well - I say it without trying to be political. I don't think they have any problem. For sure, this is sport and there is always friction with your team-mate. It would not be normal if you were a happily married couple! You always judge yourself against your team-mate. It is normal, and there are some times when you don't want to go for dinner with your team-mate because he is your first rival.
But having said that - you have to learn how to work with your team-mate in testing to help improve the car. Then when you go to a race you treat him as any other rival. This is my philosophy. I try to be very open in testing, because whatever I learn or whatever Kamui [Kobayashi] learns, it is going to help the team. And I learned a lot from McLaren - they were very good about it being very open between both sides of the garages. Then once you go racing, it is whoever is the best wins.
Q. You said at the launch of the car that you weren't sure if you wanted to carry on as GPDA chairman now that you were racing. Are you any closer a decision on that?
PdlR: We have taken the decision that we will go to Bahrain, and then we will have the meeting on Friday. We will then ask all the GPDA members what they want to do. I personally would like another guy to step in in my position. I've done it for two years, so it is healthy. There are guys there who will have more time, and we need dedicated guys. I've been very happy with what I've done, I think I've done a good job, and now it is time for guys with more time to take over. However, I will leave it to them. I think that they will agree with me - but let's see what they say.
Q. Does it need to be a non race driver in that position?
PdlR: I think that it is necessary to have a test driver as a director or chairman, because that driver will take a lot of the load work during grands prix - which he can and that is what I was doing. I helped unload Fernando and Mark over race weekends.
Q. So would someone like Nick Heidfeld be the perfect candidate?
PdlR: Yes he would be a very good candidate for sure. He is intelligent and experienced, so why not? But it is up to the members. I am very open. If they say, 'Pedro, we want you to continue' then I don't know. I hope not! But I think Heidfeld would be a very good candidate.
Q. Have you had a chance to compare the downforce levels when following someone?
PdlR: I did in Jerez, but to me it was very similar to the old days. I didn't feel I could run any closer to the guy in front. It will be difficult to overtake - but I don't think it be more difficult than last year. It won't be easier, but it will be the same.