Martin Whitmarsh has warned McLaren-Mercedes' F1 2011 rivals that the new MP4-26 will be 'innovative' and contends that the team has 'the best driver pairing' on the current grand prix grid - even if he concedes that the competition in the top flight this year is going to be every bit as tough as it has ever been.

Last season, Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button both vied for title glory - tallying five victories between them - but although the former took the battle all the way down to the Abu Dhabi finale, ultimately the duo wound up respectively just fourth and fifth in the standings, and McLaren itself came up 44 points short of pipping arch-rivals Red Bull Racing to constructors' glory.

For 2011, the Woking-based outfit has followed Red Bull's lead in recent years in leaving the debut of its new challenger purposely late. Whilst team principal Whitmarsh cautions that 'you can never be confident', it is clear that he is quietly optimistic the deliberate delay will pay dividends.

"I think F1's 2010 season was fantastic for the sport and fantastic for the fans," the Englishman reflected, speaking exclusively to Crash.net during the pre-season Autosport International show. "Inevitably, if you don't win the world championship and you're McLaren, you're going to be disappointed - but overall, I think it was a great, great championship. I'm sorry that we didn't win it, but we're going to be focussed on trying to put that right in 2011.

"The truth is, we're always pretty fired-up. We've got an incredible team of people who are very, very motivated; they're working hard and we go into every year seeking to win and hoping that we're going to win. The car is in car-build at the moment. It's always hard-pushed for everyone, but it looks good to me, it looks innovative, I think there are some interesting features on it and I'm sure there's going to be lots of discussion about it - but I suspect others will be working just as hard as we are.

"You can never be confident. We took the decision [to launch the MP4-26 late] probably six months ago; we thought it was right then, and I don't have any reason yet to believe that it was wrong. We feel that for us, giving our aerodynamicists and our engineers the maximum amount of time to find performance and develop the car was the right thing to do."

So much for the car, but every team also needs two solid pedallers behind the wheel, and Whitmarsh believes that in Hamilton and Button - the only title-winning team-mates in the field, having lifted the laurels in 2008 and 2009 respectively - McLaren has an instant advantage over its adversaries. There might be a demanding campaign in prospect, but the 52-year-old is convinced that everything is in-place to take on and beat the best.

"I think the fact that they're world champions just shows how good they are and the class that they have," he mused. "I think the fact that we have two great drivers clearly makes us a stronger team. I'm very happy with our driver line-up. I think we've got the best driver pairing in F1, and that's good when you're going into a championship trying to win it.

"F1 has always been tough. Ferrari and Red Bull are going to be tough to beat and I think Mercedes as well - I'm sure they're going to be stronger this year than they were last year. We're at the pinnacle of motorsport and it's meant to be difficult - if it was easy to win, then it wouldn't be as enjoyable when you do. The competition is very tough these days.

"[Renault] have had a difficult time, and on paper I think they're not in the top four teams, but I don't wish to insult them because I think they've got some very good people and you can't underestimate them - or any of the teams. They can have that 'Eureka!' moment; they can spring forward and make us all look foolish.

"As far as I'm concerned, we've got to try to beat all of the teams, but you've got to assess who you think the primary competition will be. Clearly, Ferrari, Red Bull and Mercedes you would expect to be the toughest to beat this year - but we're going to do our best."

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