Martin Whitmarsh is heading to Melbourne confident that his McLaren team can be a contender from race one of the 2012 F1 world championship, but stops short of declaring the Woking outfit as the one to beat.

Pre-season testing has been a less traumatic affair for McLaren this time around, with no repeat of the 'octopus exhaust' affair that cost it valuable development time in the build-up to last year's season-opener. As it happened, the cancellation of the planned curtain-raiser in Bahrain provided a little breathing room that allowed to team to produce its own version of Red Bull's exhaust, but it took some time before Whitmarsh and co would claim to be a match for their Milton Keynes rivals.

The MP4-27 is noticeable among this year's expected frontrunners in not having been designed with a stepped nose - the result of having a lower chassis height than many of its rivals - but has performed well in the three pre-season sessions at Jerez and Barcelona, with both Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button featuring at the right end of the timesheets. Red Bull, too, has also been prominent - even if Lotus stole the majority of the headlines with some chart-topping performances from returnee Kimi Raikkonen and GP2 champion Romain Grosjean - leading Whitmarsh to offer a positive, if guarded, take on the year ahead.

"I wish I could say 'yes' [to the question of being champions in 2012]," he told a McLaren media phone-in, "The winter has been better than last year, when we went to Australia having not completed a race distance and looking spectacularly uncompetitive. [This year], we sense that we are competitive internally.

"The bad news is that we are not dominant, but the good news is that no-one does. Fuel loads, tyre and test programmes all interfere when it comes to judging relative performance, and race distances and long runs give a better indication than end of day times, so, based on that, we feel that we will be competitive. Some people may have been 'sandbagging', but Red Bull and ourselves did not do qualifying simulations, while others may have...."

Whitmarsh was clearly happier with all aspects of the team's preparations this time around, as Hamilton and Button both showed their appetite for the fight.

"We have a reliable car, one that the drivers like and are buoyant about," he claimed, "We have already brought developments to it and it has responded positively. The upgrades worked as predicted, and that gives us the feeling that we will competitive. We expect to win races and, if we win enough, that should lead to the championship."