McLaren-Mercedes team principal Martin Whitmarsh has confessed that the team 'initially did not believe' that it would be able to complete its dramatic upgrade in time for the F1 2011 curtain-raising Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne last weekend – but following Lewis Hamilton's superb runner-up finish Down Under, he now forecasts a 'great championship' in prospect.
So unreliable and uncompetitive was the new MP4-26 at its birth that – following a month of testing during which matters did not really greatly improve – McLaren resorted to drastic measures, taking the bold step of introducing an untried and completely redesigned floor and exhaust system at Albert Park. Right from the moment that Jenson Button and team-mate Hamilton paced Friday practice, it was clear that the risk had paid off and that the Woking-based outfit had taken a quantum leap forward.
That much was confirmed by second and fourth places on the grid in qualifying, and Hamilton's race day podium finish – with Whitmarsh adamant that without Button's contentious drive-through penalty for his pass on Ferrari rival Felipe Massa [see separate story – click here
], both Brits would have been inside the top three.
Still, following a winter of discontent, it was a thoroughly heartening weekend for the multiple world champions, and even if Red Bull Racing unquestionably holds a substantial advantage for the time being – particularly once it brings KERS to its RB7, reckoned to be worth in the region of three-to-four tenths of a second per lap – Whitmarsh is confident McLaren will be able to close the gap once it begins to refine and extract the maximum performance from the new package that was so hurriedly brought to the MP4-26 in Australia.
“If we make as much progress in the next ten days as in the last ten, it will be easy, won't it!” the Englishman quipped. “Three tenths is not insignificant, but you can make those steps. You've got to keep pushing; if they (Red Bull) don't, we'll attack, but I'm sure they're going to keep pushing – they're a strong team. We leave here knowing we had a car capable of taking two places on the podium – it was genuine pace. Both drivers and the team had a difficult winter, and it is fantastic to come out of it that strong.
“I think Lewis was not quite as quick as Sebastian [Vettel], but until he had the floor damage he was not far from him. I think his tyre usage was slightly lighter than the Red Bulls and Ferraris – and I think by comparison with most of the quick cars – so that's encouraging. I think that will become more critical for instance at Sepang, which is going to be heavier on tyres – if people here were having to three-stop and we were comfortably able to two-stop, maybe that will be an advantage. It depends how it falls.
“In truth, we've been in slightly tunnel-vision for the last ten days, because initially we did not believe we could get this upgrade here, so we focussed on that. We'll re-group now and we'll take a view on what's possible for Malaysia. We have to dig deep – it's a long championship, and we have to improve race-by-race.
“We know that what we did here was a fairly improvised set of modifications, so we can improve on those, certainly by the time we get to Malaysia. Sebastian is doing a fantastic job, and so is Adrian [Newey – Red Bull chief technical officer], so we're going to have to work hard, but that's what we're here for. I think it's a prospect now of a great championship.
“Ferrari did look off the pace and so did Mercedes, but they're two great teams and they've got the knowledge and the capability – we saw how Ferrari had a great recovery last year. This is one race, I think it was a reasonably encouraging start, certainly by comparison to winter testing – and we'll now see what we can do for the rest of the season.”