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Schumacher admits Mercedes are off the pace

Mercedes GP is unlikely to win Formula One's season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix, according to team driver Michael Schumacher.

"Maybe not," Schumacher said today when asked whether the former Brawn GP team could challenge from the March 14 opener. "At the moment we are not perfectly in the position we would like to be, to be competitive to win the first races straight away."

The seven-time F1 champion, who is back after three years in retirement, said the pecking order was still developing with preseason testing ending at the Circuit de Catalunya on Sunday.

Schumacher's lap time of 1 minute, 21.689 seconds was over a second behind leading driver Nico Hulkenberg of Williams. Ferrari driver Fernando Alonso, arguably the preseason favorite for the driver's title, was a second quicker than the 41-year-old German.

"We're working hard, the season is long. The main issue is not to be far off," Schumacher said. "This is very difficult to judge right now, what is the real picture."

Red Bull and McLaren are also expected to be front-runners, with Mark Webber setting the pace for Red Bull on Thursday.

Schumacher said the car's pace — which helped it win last year's driver and constructors' titles — was improving as his time with the team grew.

"We are working very good together. It has taken very little time to work with the team and to get on with everybody," Schumacher said. "Testing is one thing, racing is another thing."

Former champion Lewis Hamilton expected Mercedes to be in the mix come Bahrain, although the McLaren driver wasn't ruling himself out for a win to open the season.

"It's so hard to tell," Hamilton, the 2008 winner, said, "(but) I'm a positive guy so I'm going for it."

Hamilton, who is joined by defending champion Jenson Button this season, said the British team was in a "much stronger" position than last year when a poor start left it too far behind to catch-up by the time it finally starting winning races.

"It feels light years ahead of what it felt last year at this time," Hamilton said.