Valentino Rossi has played down Ducati's chances of fighting for MotoGP title glory in 2012 - but is optimistic the Italian manufacturer will be closer to the front this year.
After a difficult 2011 campaign, where neither Rossi nor team-mate Nicky Hayden won a race, Ducati is hoping that its new GP12 bike will deliver a good step forward in the forthcoming season.
But despite high hopes that the machine will be an improvement, Rossi concedes that making the step from where Ducati was last year to becoming title winner in 2012 is probably too much to expect.
"The championship is difficult because the gap in 2011 was quite big," said Rossi during a press conference at the annual Wroom Ducati and Ferrari media event at Madonna di Campiglio on Tuesday.
"Our target is to fix problems step by step, and try to come closer to Yamaha and Honda. And from that moment, start to fix all the details, to be competitive for the victory."
When pushed further on his belief that the title was not possible in 2012, Rossi replied: "I do not want to say from the start that I cannot fight for the championship, but I have to be realistic.
"In the end there was 1.5 seconds we have to recover, and our target is to get close to the others and be able to race with them and fight with them. This is our goal."
Ducati's new GP12 bike was off the pace in the post-season Valencia test and, although improvements should bring it closer to the front in the forthcoming pre-season run in Malaysia, Rossi is not expecting an instant transformation in form.
"I think that the first test will be important, and for sure the bike will be different compared to last year," he explained. "It is impossible to be competitive from the first test, but I think we will have some good information to work with, and be ready for the first race."
Rossi is sure, however, that with good work from himself and Ducati, results will come soon – and that things will definitely be better than they were last season.
"Last year was a lot worse because from the first test we understood that the season will be very tough and difficult," he explained. "After three laps we understood we could not win the first race, but now the situation is better – because I am fit.
"We know we need time, but we work well together – and it is a dream to try and win the first race. But in reality, we are a bit too far off – but maybe the new bike is a miracle."
Rossi believes that one factor that will be better for him this year is his physical shape – because he is no longer troubled by the shoulder injury that affected his form during the first part of 2011.
When asked about how his feelings for this year compared to those he had prior to 2011, he said: "I have to say it is a bit different because last year I arrived in a worse physical condition, so my mood was a bit down.
"Today I am in shape physically, and we have two or three weeks ahead of us. I am ready for the first test. It is nice to work with Ducati, even if unfortunately the results have been under our expectations. The atmosphere is nice and we all believe in what we are doing."
Hayden too is bullish that the GP12, which he has not yet ridden, will produce the improved pace that Ducati is after.
"I am very optimistic," he said. "I think we have some different stuff to try in Malaysia, but it is not easy.
"Honda has really set the bar high, and hopefully we are closer there than we were in Valencia. But sitting up here – talk is cheap. I can say this and that about how we are going to be right there, but until we get there and roll out of the garage...
"I am confident we will be closer. We have some idea – but there is no need to make any predictions here in January. And even then it doesn't matter until we get to Qatar. I hope we will be much closer, and it will tell us more where the 1000s are against the 800s. But I believe in Ducati, I believe in this project, Filippo [Preziosi] and everyone involved."
Looking at the overall MotoGP situation going into 2012, Rossi thinks Honda may carry over some of its 2011 advantage – but he hopes the switch to 1000cc engines will level the playing field.
"I think that in 2011, Honda decided they wanted to win and they put on the table an amount of money that others did not have," he said. "It came out with a bike that was really incredible, so this technology will go on with 1000cc.
"But I hope Yamaha will be more competitive and I hope so for us, to have a more balanced championship. That is our desire."