Bernie Ecclestone has hinted that in his opinion McLaren-Mercedes are not quite as far off the pace heading into the 2009 curtain-raising Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne this coming weekend as they would have their rivals believe.

The Woking-based concern's new MP4-24 has repeatedly languished towards the tail end of the timesheets in every one of the pre-season tests, be it in the hands of reigning Formula 1 World Champion Lewis Hamilton, team-mate Heikki Kovalainen or test driver Pedro de la Rosa.

The crux of the problems afflicting the new machine appears to be aerodynamic and linked to the rear end of the car, and team principal Martin Whitmarsh admitted over the weekend that 'we go into the start of the 2009 season fully aware that we do not yet have the technical package that will allow our drivers to fight at the front' [see separate story - click here]. The sport's commercial rights-holder Ecclestone, however, does not entirely buy that argument.

"No, not at all," he replied, when asked by British newspaper the Sunday Telegraph whether he believed McLaren are genuinely in serious difficulty. "I think you will find that they are still very competitive in Melbourne.

"Let's put it this way - there's been no need for them to show that they're quick."

McLaren was one of only a handful of teams to conduct an extra test session at Jerez in southern Spain last week, and on the basis of lap times at least, it seemed to help to unlock a bit more performance from the troubled MP4-24. Another team to stay on for the additional week was Brawn GP - and Ecclestone is convinced that in the latter's case, the astounding pace that has been displayed by the ex-Honda outfit is very, very real.

"Now they [Brawn GP] aren't sandbagging or joking," the 78-year-old contended. "Jenson has shown he's quick, so there's no reason in the world why he shouldn't be what we all thought he was. He's been unlucky up until now."

Former grand prix ace-turned F1 television pundit Marc Surer, however, does not subscribe to Ecclestone's McLaren theory - even if he contends that the multiple world champions will get on top of their issues...in time.

"There is no bluffing," the Swiss star told spox.com. "They are having problems. They definitely have an aerodynamic problem.

"It would surprise me if they will be where they want to be in Melbourne. We can safety assume they will get to the bottom of it, but they are not going to have a winning car all of a sudden."