Jenson Button has repeated his claim the new McLaren MP4-28 is not a competitive proposition, as it emerges that a set-up error in testing may have given the team false optimism before the season began.
Having managed only tenth in the delayed Australian Grand Prix qualifying session, Button went on to finish an anonymous ninth in the race itself, better than predicted but still frustrating for a man who had topped the testing times during the winter and headed into the season believing that he could be a title contender.
Instead, despite notching up a couple of points he felt may have been beyond him, the Briton is already a long way behind the likes of Kimi Raikkonen, Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel with little hope of a resurgence while the early season 'flyaways' come thick and fast, beginning with this weekend's trip to Malaysia.
Button and McLaren ended the 2012 season on a high, with victory in the Interlagos finale, but, instead of optimising the package it had with the MP4-27, the team opted to redesign its car in the hope that it would provide a higher development ceiling than its rival, many of which are logical evolutions of 2012 machinery. Button has made no secret of the problems the team had in understanding the car's behaviour during the winter, and it appears that things aren't getting any better.
"We didn't expect to get a couple of points, but it doesn't really ease the pain," the Briton sighed when talking to the media after a tough 58 laps around Albert Park, "If we came away from Malaysia with the same number of points, we'd be ecstatic, but I think we're going to have a tough week. We can't do too much before next weekend, so we're not suddenly going to be competitive.
“We should be further forward, so hopefully we can understand the car a bit more after the race today and extract a bit more performance, but it's going to be a long night doing the debrief."
It would appear that McLaren's pre-season test pace created false hope within the team, as veteran F1 scribe Adam Cooper reveals that Button posted the fastest time at Jerez with certain parts fitted incorrectly to his car. Ironically, combined with that particular circuit and the fuel loads he was running at the time, the resulting low ride height actually made the car better than it was when the mistake was corrected. Unfortunately for McLaren, it would have been impossible for the MP4-28 to run in its 'Jerez configuration' over a race weekend, particularly with heavier fuel loads.
“It was a part fitted incorrectly which caused us to run the car unrealistically low, [and] that happened to play to the strengths of the car,” team principal Martin Whitmarsh confirmed, “It wouldn't work on a bumpy circuit like [Australia]. That's why the car at the moment is too peaky in its performance, and that's something we've got to resolve. It was a set-up which on many tracks was not realistic.”
Despite trailing in the early stages of the season, however, Button is refusing to give up on his title dream, even if the car will not receive a major overhaul until the teams return to Europe for May's Spanish Grand Prix – a point at which many, it has been claimed, will have to decide whether to their technical resources behind the new rules for 2014 rather than prolonging their involvement in the current battle.
“At this stage, we still have to aim for the world championship - that has to be the target when you drive for McLaren,” Button concluded, “But it's going to be very difficult for us from where we are, a lot harder than we thought this year.
"Getting back to the front is not going to happen whilst we're racing outside Europe, but we've going to deal with it the best we can and push hard for improvements."
Whitmarsh has already made it clear that McLaren is unlikely to revert to its 2012 car while it tries to sort the problems with the MP4-28 [ see separate story