The precise pecking-order is clouded, but one thing is clear: 2012 looks set to be a highly competitive season in formula one.

"There are a lot of cars out there that look competitive," said McLaren's Jenson Button, on the day Williams' Pastor Maldonado set the quickest time in the midst of the second group test in Barcelona.

Earlier this week, Force India's Nico Hulkenberg was the pacesetter, causing Mercedes' Norbert Haug to tell Bild newspaper: "That's great."

"I didn't expect that," agreed world champion Sebastian Vettel.

Hulkenberg smiled: "'Test champion' gives me nothing. But I am in good shape."

Vettel continued to Kleine Zeitung newspaper: "This year everything is closer together", he said, after his teammate Mark Webber admitted there is "no question" Red Bull needs to keep working on the pace of its new RB8.

According to Die Welt newspaper, Vettel continued: "Most of the competitors are difficult to assess. It's the same old game."

He is referring to unknown fuel levels, tyre age and differing approaches and programmes -- and teams' deliberate sandbagging or 'show-run' efforts.

"I never paid too much attention to direct comparisons on headline laptimes," insisted David Coulthard, "but on the longer runs you can start to build a picture."

Williams engineer Mark Gillan told Auto Motor und Sport: "It seems as though the entire field has moved much closer together. It will be a tough fight."

An early assessment of the pecking order might have Red Bull and McLaren at the front, and Mercedes and Lotus possibly ready to join the fight.

"It looks like Red Bull are fairly stable," Coulthard agreed to Russia's Ria Novosti news agency, "(and) McLaren and Mercedes maybe closer than they were.

"Ferrari is a bit of an unknown but I wouldn't write them off. Let's be patient, another three weeks of tweaking and then we'll find out," said the former McLaren and Red Bull driver.