SEPANG, Malaysia (Reuters) - Ferrari's drivers have praised the improvements the team have made after a solid winter of testing and encouraging display in Australia with new recruit Sebastian Vettel claiming he is much happier with the car than he was with last year's Red Bull.
The four-times Formula One champion joined Finn Kimi Raikkonen at the Italian outfit after a poor defense of his title last season and looked comfortable in his new surroundings with third place at the season-opener in Melbourne.
Raikkonen also struggled to make an instant impact at Ferrari on his return to a team he left in 2009 but was left to rue a second botched pit stop at Albert Park that forced an early retirement when fifth place was a distinct possibility.
Despite both cars still looking someway off the pace set by dominant Mercedes duo Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, Ferrari have leapfrogged the floundering Red Bulls and appear more than a match for Williams in the battle for second place.
"I think it's natural that the cars make a step forward, and to be honest since the first day I felt quite happy," Vettel told reporters on Thursday ahead of the Malaysian Grand Prix.
"I was obviously struggling a little bit here and there in last year's car and not entirely happy.
"Whereas with this year's car, and the Ferrari of this year, since the first day I was reasonably happy with the balance we have."
Raikkonen agreed with his team mate and is expecting a much brighter campaign after failing to secure a podium last season with fourth place in Belgium the Finn's best result.
"Obviously we are in a much better position than we were say even at the end of last year so in that way it's a nice place to be but obviously we still have to improve quite a bit," he said.
"We want to be in front and we still don't have the speed exactly, at least in qualifying, to be there. In the race, I think we are a bit stronger compared to Mercedes but I think it will be a fun year."
Vettel is optimistic that Ferrari can carry the positive momentum from Melbourne into this weekend's race and establish themselves high up in the pecking order.
"We'll try to obviously confirm the results and the impression we left in Australia, so we try to make sure that we establish ourselves in a similar position," he added.
"Ideally a little bit closer to Mercedes and ideally a little bit further away from Williams, but I expect it to be very, very close."
Editing by Ed Osmond