By Nick Mulvenney
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Fernando Alonso resonated positivity on his first public appearance in Australia on Thursday, maintaining Ferrari would be title contenders this year despite a disappointing winter testing.
Ferrari personnel have lined up in recent weeks to downplay the chances of early success, starting at Sunday's season-opening Australian Grand Prix, because of teething problems with the radically overhauled 2012 car.
The twice world champion, however, said the real state of play at the front end of the grid would only be known when the cars take to the Albert Park track for qualifying on Saturday.
"We want to be world champion at the end, that's the ultimate target, and in Melbourne we need to make a good start," the Spaniard told reporters at a Melbourne cafe.
"We will find out how competitive we are on Saturday.
"The races are the truth," he added. "In winter testing, we see some teams that are quite quick and then when we arrive at the race they are not quick any more.
"In 2010, in the last test in Barcelona we were fifth with quite a low fuel load and then we arrived in Bahrain and we were 1-2. The race is always quite different."
Having said on his blog this week that Ferrari "definitely still need to improve a lot" and the drivers would have to "grit their teeth" for the first few races, Alonso did not look like it was worrying him too much.
"I'm confident, I'm very relaxed about the possibilities of our car," he said. "The winter has been very tough for us with so many tests to do. It's quite a complex car in terms of set-up and understanding the car.
"Maybe we didn't reach targets that were very optimistic but that doesn't mean we are slower than the other cars."
Alonso won the Australian Grand Prix on his way to his second world title in 2006 and finished fourth last year despite much more promising pre-season testing sessions.
With Melbourne just the first of 20 races this season and Ferrari among the better funded teams and therefore better able to make improvements throughout the year, the 30-year-old was taking a long-term view of the campaign.
"I believe in the team, I trust the team completely," he said.
"It is like the Tour de France and this is the first stage, we'll see how we can do here in Melbourne but it will be a long championship and Ferrari will always be there."
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)