Jonathan Neale insists McLaren-Mercedes is far from ready to write off Ferrari and Mercedes Grand Prix from this year's title chase, despite its two rivals' distinctly underwhelming performances in the F1 2011 curtain-raising Australian Grand Prix just over a week ago.
On the basis of winter testing, the form book heading Down Under seemed to suggest that Ferrari's 150° Italia was ultra-reliable and as near to the leading pace as dammit, that Mercedes had taken a quantum leap forward with its initially off-colour MGP W02 – with Michael Schumacher pacing the final week in Barcelona – and that McLaren was conversely all-at-sea with its troublesome MP4-26, a car bedevilled by problems and struggling in the outright speed stakes to-boot. Come Melbourne, that form book was turned upside-down.
A one-two for Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton in FP2 on Friday afternoon gave the first real indication that the 'dramatic changes' brought to McLaren's new baby in a desperate bid to boost the British duo's chances had paid off handsomely, and second position for the latter in both qualifying and the race confirmed that impressive progress. Indeed, but for Button's drive-through penalty for cutting the chicane when he passed Felipe Massa, team principal Martin Whitmarsh is convinced both
of his drivers would have been up on the podium.
The best-placed Ferrari, by contrast, qualified almost one-and-a-half seconds shy of Sebastian Vettel's extraordinary benchmark and took the chequered flag more than half-a-minute adrift of the runaway Red Bull, whilst Mercedes was nowhere near to the pace, and both Schumacher and Nico Rosberg retired from the grand prix with accident damage within a handful of laps of one another.
Whilst conceding that McLaren's start to the season had exceeded all expectations, the team's managing director Neale is quick to caution that due to its semi-street circuit characteristics, Albert Park is rarely an accurate barometer of the true pecking order in F1, suggesting that the likes of Sepang and Barcelona will 'test the cars more fully' and consequently offer a more representative assessment.
“Although we didn't win the race, we were pleased with the performance of our car,” the Englishman reflected in a special Vodafone McLaren-Mercedes Phone-In Session ahead of this weekend's Malaysian Grand Prix. “That was a confidence boost for us, but we're not for one minute thinking we've seen the best of Ferrari or Mercedes at this stage. We watched each other carefully throughout winter testing, and I'm absolutely sure both of those teams have more to bring.
“Evidently we didn't have the quickest car [in Australia], but we will be working hard over the next few races to ensure that Lewis and Jenson can get onto the front row in qualifying. I think there's still a reasonable amount of work to do; some areas of the car we are satisfied with, but it's all about how do we exploit the tyres and the downforce?”
Acknowledging that there are 'a whole range of interesting features out there' and that different teams have extracted performance gains from different aspects of the car, Neale quipped that 'everyone is looking at everybody else' and that 'typically, teams want to explore and understand why another team has gone in a particular direction, especially if they are quick!'
Stressing that reliability is the byword in the light of the manifold regulation changes this season, the 48-year-old added that performance-enhancing aerodynamic innovations remain the Holy Grail, and that teams' relative competitiveness should become clearer by the time the F1 circus arrives in Istanbul for next month's Turkish Grand Prix.