McLaren-Mercedes might have arrived at Suzuka riding the crest of a wave following Lewis Hamilton's second victory of the 2009 F1 World Championship campaign in Singapore four days ago, but Jonathan Neale has confessed that the team does 'not expect to have an easy time' of things in the Japanese Grand Prix this weekend.
Hamilton's Marina Bay triumph – pit-stops apart, leading from lights all the way to chequered flag – cemented the remarkable turnaround in performance that the ultra-successful Woking-based outfit has produced this year, having originally found itself grappling back in the Melbourne curtain-raiser six months ago with a car in the MP4-24 that was more than two seconds away from the leading pace.
Since the midway point, however, Suzuka virgin Hamilton has invariably been right up at the sharp end of proceedings, ascending the top step of the rostrum in Hungary and Singapore and setting no fewer than three pole positions in qualifying, just one shy of the highest tally of the season, held by Brawn GP compatriot and world championship leader Jenson Button.
The unquestionable nadir, though, came cruelly on the reigning world champion's home turf in the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, when an abject showing saw the 24-year-old able to qualify no better than 19th and take the chequered flag 16th in front of his adoring partisan supporters on race day.
With the demands placed on the car by the Suzuka International Circuit not markedly different to those of Silverstone, McLaren Racing managing director Neale acknowledges that this weekend will provide a true litmus test of just how much the team has progressed in recent weeks.
“Increasingly as we get towards the back end of the season, we have to be realistic,” the Englishman stressed, speaking during a special pre-Japanese Grand Prix Vodafone McLaren-Mercedes Phone-in session. “We're not in the hunt for a championship, but we are in the hunt for performance and understanding, not least of which is because we'd like to beat our colleagues at Ferrari, as I know that they would like to beat us.
“We're also establishing a lot of the base plans and the know-how and the concepts for next year, which is where the lion's share of our organisation is now focussing. We took a range of aerodynamic upgrades [to Singapore]. We took floor upgrades and a new front wing which ran on the Friday; in the end, with the aero balance that we decided to run, we got better lap times from the previous wing, but having tested it we're taking it again to Japan.
“At the end of the day you're balancing outright lap time with end-of-straight speed and aero efficiency. Everything we took worked, which was pleasing, but we don't have a huge amount to come for the rest of the season. We've got some bits and pieces for Japan, but we don't expect to have an easy time there by any means.
“A mark of how far we've come this season will be the comparison between our performance this weekend versus the tortuous time we had at Silverstone, given that the basic circuit characteristics are broadly the same. If you look at the average circuit speed, Suzuka is up there with Silverstone – and traditionally this year we've done well at the higher-downforce or lower-speed circuits like Hungary, Singapore and Valencia. We're bracing ourselves a bit for a tougher fight this weekend, and it will be interesting to see just how far we've come.”