The updates brought by McLaren-Mercedes to this weekend's Spanish Grand Prix have not produced the desired effect, defending Formula 1 World Champion Lewis Hamilton has warned – as he admitted the team's situation in Barcelona's high-speed corners is 'worse than expected'.
Having made consistent progress from its initial testing form and abject performance in the curtain-raising Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne in late March, McLaren seemed to take a significant step forward in Bahrain last time out. Indeed, hopes within the squad were that bodywork upgrades in the form of a new front wing, rotating rear hubs and a new floor incorporating a 'double-decker' diffuser for the first time would vault the multiple title-winners even further back up the pecking order around the Circuit de Catalunya, a successful stomping ground for the Silver Arrows and a track where they have on no fewer than three occasions in recent years locked out the top two positions on race day.
However, after lapping just 14th and 13th-quickest respectively in FP1 and FP2 on Friday – more than a second shy of the leading pace day-long – Hamilton has reflected that the improvements have not done enough. Worse still, he fears that the modifications similarly brought along by McLaren's rivals will likely see the Woking-based outfit slide further down the grid rather than climb up it – and he can see his hopes of retaining his drivers' crown ebbing further and further away.
“We're still a long way off and I didn't feel any improvement,” rued the downcast 24-year-old following the opening day of proceedings in Montmeló. “That is our true pace. It is what I said coming into the weekend and it is even worse than I expected. We have to try to get to Q2 and then work on from there. I think it is going to be hard work to get into Q3.
“From what we have experienced in practice, we definitely have a few problems. We're pushing, but unfortunately the upgrades we tried didn't work for me. We are so slow through turns three and nine and losing a lot of our time there because we can't carry the speed through the high-speed corners like other teams can, but we will still battle our way through.”
Team-mate Heikki Kovalainen also struggled for pace underneath the Spanish sun, with a hydraulics failure in the gearbox curtailing the Finn's running at the end of FP1 and at the beginning of FP2 as the problem was fixed. Though just 19th-quickest on the end-of-day timesheets, the 27-year-old was at least happier than Hamilton with the changes brought to the aerodynamically underperforming MP4-24.
“Fortunately, the team was able to fix the gearbox issue shortly after we started second practice,” he related, “so I didn't lose too much time. I'm really happy with the progress we made. The new parts we have on the car obviously seem to work – I think we've improved the technical package since Bahrain, but we need to wait until Saturday to compare our pace with our rivals.”
The Spanish Grand Prix – the beginning of the European leg of the F1 campaign – has been billed as the first true acid test in 2009 of teams' respective form, with traditional front-runners like McLaren, Ferrari, BMW-Sauber and Renault bringing developments along to the table that they hope will enable them to take the fight to early-season pace-setters Brawn GP, Red Bull Racing and Toyota. Team principal Martin Whitmarsh is well aware that it is a pivotal weekend.
“Inevitably, when you come to a circuit with a big package of modifications that need assessing in a very short period of time, you get some successes and some failures,” the Englishman reasoned, “but coming into this weekend, we've been realistic and disciplined.