McLaren-Mercedes has received a vote of confidence in its bid to catch and overhaul early-season pace-setter Red Bull Racing in the battle for title glory in F1 2011, with triple world champion Sir Jackie Stewart insisting that 'they've the resources to do it' and praising Lewis Hamilton as the best overtaker in the sport.
Red Bull star Sebastian Vettel takes a commanding 24-point advantage in the drivers' standings into this weekend's Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai, with the energy drinks-backed outfit holding an identical margin in the constructors' chase.
The defending F1 World Champion has triumphed in both of the opening two outings and the Red Bull RB7 is clearly the fastest car in the field, but McLaren was considerably closer in Malaysia last weekend, and the Woking-based concern took a dramatic leap forward between pre-season testing and the Melbourne curtain-raiser following a radical redesign of the exhaust system on its initially uncompetitive and unreliable new MP4-26, enabling Hamilton to finish as runner-up Down Under, with team-mate Jenson Button doing likewise at Sepang.
Stewart – who claimed the drivers' laurels in 1969, 1971 and 1973 – contends that if the team can make such a significant improvement in just a matter of weeks, then it can do a good deal more over the balance of the campaign.
“McLaren can do it,” the Scot told PA Sport
. “They've the resources to do it, and I think they're in great shape, but it's too early for the fat lady to sing. I'm delighted they managed to turn things around, but I have to say I was never worried they were not going to. They've a huge base of highly-skilled people, even if they don't have a genius individual any longer as Adrian Newey was there, and John Barnard before that – but they've a very strong support of very high-quality people, so you can't rule them out.”
Whilst admitting his admiration for Vettel, who he concedes is 'driving so beautifully' at present, Stewart confessed that the driver he truly enjoys watching out on the circuit is Hamilton, whose balls-out aggression and never-say-die determination have gained the 2008 world champion a legion of fans.
“As I've said before, Lewis is a real racer,” the 71-year-old underlined. “I don't think he sometimes has the smoothness of driving Jenson has, for example, but when it comes to overtaking, there is nobody better than he is. Everybody talks about [Kamui] Kobayashi, but I would put Lewis in there to get past somebody above anyone else.
“There are times when he allows his enthusiasm to be a little more spirited, but he has a very, very high level of skill – and what he does do is see an opportunity and he knows how to take it, and that I like very much.”