McLaren-Mercedes is being 'hugely supportive' of the under-fire Heikki Kovalainen, Jonathan Neale has insisted - despite much speculation over the Finn's future at the Woking-based outfit as his performances continue to languish some way behind those of team-mate Lewis Hamilton.

Since the start of the 2009 campaign, Kovalainen has succeeded in out-qualifying the reigning F1 World Champion in the sister MP4-24 on only four occasions from the 15 grands prix to-date, and has finished behind Hamilton in six of the eight races in which both drivers have seen the chequered flag. That compares to a qualifying deficit of five-ten at the same stage last year - what some observers had opined at the time would not be enough for the Suomussalmi native to retain his seat for a second consecutive season.

Points-wise, the 27-year-old trails 43 to 22 - and with Ferrari evictee Kimi Raikkonen now on the market following his dismissal by the Scuderia, the knives are out for his countryman - but McLaren Racing managing director Neale is adamant that the multiple world championship-winning concern is doing all it can.

"Let me make it clear that our policy has always been and always will be to provide a car that is of equal capability to both drivers," he stressed, speaking during an exclusive Vodafone McLaren-Mercedes 'Phone-in' session. "The car isn't customised in its inherent characteristics to either Lewis or to Heikki, and they don't have particularly diverse driving styles [compared to one another]. Some of the things Kimi preferred in the car compared to Juan-Pablo [Montoya] were interesting, and [Fernando] Alonso had a pretty unique style as well - but I would say the difference in driving style between Lewis and Heikki is not great.

"Differences in set-up and options mean that on occasion Heikki has struggled with the softer tyre. We've done a lot of work with him recently on tyre wear, tyre pressure management and set-up, but as you can see - and I think we've been quite clear with the press on this - Heikki qualifies really well, but it's perhaps just in that first phase of the race where he has found the car more challenging and probably felt that he hasn't got the car underneath him that he had in qualifying. Somewhere between those two lies the answer, and if either Heikki or I really knew the answer to it we'd have fixed it earlier in the year.

"It's something that's still very much a work in progress, and we're hugely supportive of Heikki - there's a good team of people around him trying to really focus on giving him the confidence in the car during that early part of the race. I thought in Singapore he did a really good job, actually; he had the car under him on the Friday from the get-go. I think he actually settled into the groove quicker than Lewis was able to. Lewis on the Friday evening still had frustrations with the car, the grip, the circuit, the bumpiness - but we did a lot of work over Friday night and he came out of the blocks on Saturday morning and just nailed it. I'm not taking anything away from Heikki - that's just what Lewis is capable of."

As to the talk of 2007 F1 World Champion Raikkonen rejoining his former employers, Neale is remaining tight-lipped, reasoning that with Fernando Alonso's recently-confirmed switch from Renault to Ferrari, the driver market is finally beginning to clunk into gear - and that there could be all manner of transfers or otherwise over the coming weeks and months.

"I completely understand why you would ask that question, and you'll also completely understand why I can't be completely transparent with you," he told, when pressed about the speculation. "What I would say is that with three new teams potentially coming in, with some of the changes around at BMW and with a number of other high-profile rumoured moves - not least of which is what we hope will be the successful return of Felipe Massa to the system - the driver market is poised for a lot of movement.

"As a result of that, pretty much everybody is talking to everybody at the moment; the newer teams are talking to some existing race drivers and the test drivers - because we've got some very experienced back-up drivers in F1 at the moment too. A number of drivers have spoken to us, but singling out any one of them and saying there's anything deeper in that would be inappropriate at the moment. We're hugely supportive and doing everything we can with Heikki at the moment, and we're keeping an open mind at this stage."


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