McLaren came to this weekend's F1 Grand Prix of Spain with high hopes that their new aerodynamic improvements would salvage a dismal start to their 2013 season. But after a day of practice on Friday at the Circuit de Catalunya, the optimism was visibly draining away and reality sinking in.

"We're still a hell of a long way off the pace," Jenson Button admitted on Friday evening after ending up with the 12th fastest time of the day. "We don't have the outright pace of the quick guys.

Just how far off the pace McLaren now are was starkly illustrated by Button's admission that getting into Q3 in Saturday qualifying could be too much to ask for, and that the team might not even be in the 'Big Four' any longer.

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"I think you'll see four teams that are very competitive at the front," he said about this weekend's race. "I don't think we'll be one of them.

"Even if we make an improvement it's very difficult to make a big jump," Button added. "We need a big chunk and I'm not sure we have that."

Button pointed out that Friday hadn't exactly been an optimal experience given that he was the only driver not to record any track time in the morning session while new parts were being bolted on to his MP4-28, and insisted that the team could get better before qualifying.

"We did have a lot of new parts on the car, visible parts on the car. I think we can improve overnight, but the thing is with this sport everyone's moving forward," said Button said.

"We need to work on some areas, areas I didn't think we'd have to," he admitted. "With getting the right set-up with the car, we'll see some improvements - but not to be fighting at the front ... I think it's going to be quite a big gap to the front."

Team mate Sergio Perez agreed with Button's generally gloomy assessment.

"It's the fifth race and we're still two seconds a lap slower," said the Mexican, who joined the Woking squad at the start of the year replacing Lewis Hamilton. "It's not realistic to think that we are going to be fighting for the title," he added.

Perez identified a discrepancy between what the data analysis of wind tunnel tests was telling them compared with what the team was finding when they actually went out on track. It's a similar issue to that which Ferrari wrestled with in 2012.

"I think we need to keep working with the correlation," he said. "Once we get that right we can start to improve the cars in big steps."

And Jenson Button felt that the problem was getting better at Barcelona as the team returns to the track where the F1 pre-season testing days took place.

"It is good to see that the data from the wind tunnel and what we have seen today correlates, so it is something that we can build on," said the 2009 world champion. "Whether it's this weekend that we move significantly towards the front, I doubt it. But overall it was a promising day in regards to the future.

Even so, Perez admitted that it would take "a perfect weekend" for the team to be able to score any significant points in Barcelona. Perez had actually scored more points with Sauber by this stage of the season last year than he has so far at McLaren. Neither he nor Button have come close to securing a podium finish in 2013, and McLaren is now sixth in the constructors championship behind Force India.

But Button insisted that the team wasn't going to give up and that even if the title was no longer a realistic objective there was still the motivation of going out and winning Grand Prix races.

"Whatever happens this weekend, the guys will not get down," he said. "We are very good at improving over the season, so even if this weekend is not as good as we had hoped we will still keep on pushing. This team wants to win races and that is what we will aim for.

"You have ups and downs and this team has been very strong in the last couple of years even though it hasn't clinched a title, but we've won many Grands Prix," he said. "The aim is to move forward with every race and I would say that we've definitely are moving further to the front.

"The downside is: everybody else has too."