One of the most surprising things to come out of the first two rounds of the 2013 F1 season was seeing just how badly McLaren were struggling to match the pace of their chief rivals at the front of the grid. But after that nightmare start, Jenson Button is cautiously hopeful that a new set of upgrades will put the team on the road to recovery as it hits Shanghai for the Chinese Grand Prix this weekend.
“We can't yet conclusively tell if the upgrades we brought to this race have improved the car," he told the media after the end of Friday's two 90-minute sessions. "They're perhaps not as big a step forward as we'd expected - the issues with the car are still there - but the car does feel a little bit better.
“We've worked very hard over the last few weeks to bring the new parts here – which is great," he added. "Today's been all about putting mileage on those parts; now we need to sit down and look at the data this evening – there's a lot to look through."
"We spent both practice session running lots of tests, evaluating a number of new parts and gathering useful data," elaborated McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh at the end of a busy day for the team in China. “It's too early to say yet whether any of that work is conclusive – there is still an awful lot of data to be analysed by the engineers this evening – but, as always, I'm confident that we will take a step forward in performance tomorrow.
Button ran over 50 laps through the day and improved his morning time of 1:38.069s to 1:36.432s while finishing sixth in the timesheets in both FP1 and FP2.
Even so, Button was downbeat in his expectations for this weekend: I don't think we'll be fighting at the front this weekend," he admitted. "But we'll definitely be fighting someone!"
As ever, a key component to the race outcome will be tyre management. Button, who is famously normally smooth and easy going on his tyres, nonetheless suffered a tyre delamination during FP2.
“My puncture happened after I'd already decided to pit," he explained. "I got to the braking zone at turn 14, locked up the front left and the tyre just punctured – there was a hole through it. It's a good job that corner is just before the pits."
Overall, Button saw potential headaches when it came to using the soft option tyres during the race.
"I feel we'll be using the prime tyre quite a lot in the race," he noted. "The option tyre transforms the car completely; over one lap, there's a lot more grip, but then you start to lose time over each successive lap."
McLaren will need to spend Friday evening getting a better grip on their option tyre use, or find a race strategy that makes it work for them before the cars line up on the grid on Sunday afternoon.