"You could flip a coin between [Heikki] Kovalainen and [Lewis] Hamilton; they both could win races on a given day" - that is the expert view of Gary Anderson, who reckons that regardless of McLaren-Mercedes' struggles, the team's assumed 'number two' could be set to give the reigning Formula 1 World Champion a real run for his money this year.

Hamilton out-scored Kovalainen by 98 points to 53 in 2008 and by five victories to just one, and out-qualified the Finn 14 times to four. The general feeling is that in joining McLaren, Kovalainen was entering Hamilton's team, and that, well, he was just too nice to really upset the order by making his presence felt and giving the British star too hard a time.

Anderson, however, suggests that circumstances conspired against the man from Suomussalmi during his maiden campaign at the multiple world championship-winning, Woking-based outfit - from his high-speed, wheel rim failure-induced accident in the Spanish Grand Prix to his opening lap puncture just a fortnight later in Istanbul and the disadvantage of invariably being sent out in qualifying with a heavier fuel load on-board than the sister Silver Arrow. In 2009, the former Jordan and Stewart designer argues, it could well be a different story.

"I do rate Kovalainen very highly," he told Crash.net Radio. "Circumstances and the car last year didn't seem to fall into place for him; it just didn't happen at the right time. There was his shunt in Barcelona, and all those things knock you back a little bit.

"I think he can give Hamilton a reasonably hard time; their problem is going to be the equipment this year. Is it going to be developed quickly enough to suit Kovalainen? Do they believe in Heikki enough to listen to him, or will they just follow Lewis' direction?

"Each driver will require different things, and when you've got a car that's got a problem you have to believe in what your driver needs at some point in time. That's going to be the bit that's intriguing, but I think as drivers, you could flip a coin between Kovalainen and Hamilton. They both could win races on a given day."

Indeed, McLaren's primary source of concern with the curtain-raising Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne just around the corner this weekend is the lack of pace the new MP4-24 has displayed in pre-season testing, with aerodynamic inefficiency following the dramatic change in the top flight's regulations believed to be the chief bugbear.

That is in stark contrast to traditional rivals Ferrari, whose F2009 appears to be quick - if not necessarily reliable. But then, as Anderson well knows, it is far easier to make a quick car reliable than it is to make a reliable car quick.

"For sure, at the end of the day it's the basic concept that makes the car quick, and what you can do with that concept and how you can evolve it," the man from Coleraine explained. "If you haven't got that concept right and the thing's slow, you can be as reliable as you want but you ain't going to get there. Through the years I've seen that many, many times.

"McLaren definitely look as though they're having a bit of a struggle. In the first few tests they were putting on their 2008 rear wing assembly, so they've obviously got a problem with the stability of the rear of the car, and they're going to have to dig deep to solve it quickly. The direction I've seen them taking so far in testing wouldn't be the direction I'd be taking. I'm not saying I'm right and they're wrong, but it wouldn't be the direction I was taking.

"Ferrari have had a few reliability issues, but the car looks reasonable. It's like anything, though - you've got to finish races, so if you can get to the chequered flag, that's the important issue. If you can get there with a reasonably quick car you can win some points. Those two are going to be really scratching their heads, I think, to try to find solutions to their problems - and they are different problems."

Dismissing suggestions that the transfer of management at McLaren from Ron Dennis to long-time deputy Martin Whitmarsh has borne any negative effect on pre-season preparations - "Martin's been doing the job he's doing now for a long time and he's very competent at doing it; in reality this has just made it all public and official. As a figurehead, Ron is still there, so I don't think things within the company will alter that much" - Anderson is also somewhat dismissive of the chances of BMW-Sauber being there to pick up the pieces should the sport's two established 'grandees' fail.

The Munich and Hinwil-based concern was very much F1's 'third force' in 2008 - and 2009 was supposed to be the year in which BMW launched a concerted assault on the world title laurels. Though the F1.09 has generally appeared solid and reliable in testing, however, it has rarely looked like a world-beater.

"BMW have done the most running with KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems) and they've done the most running with a 2009-spec car, so they should have the most understanding," Anderson mused, "but their car just doesn't look out-and-out quick enough. There are other cars that I think are a bit faster.

"As a lap time-reducing device, I don't think KERS is positive, to be honest; if it is, it's a very, very small amount - maybe a tenth of a second. As an overtaking device there is a chance it could help them, so in a race they may be in a better situation, but the more complexities that you build in, when you go to Melbourne and are x-thousand miles away [from home], reliability issues pop up that you haven't seen before and suddenly it's a different deal altogether.

"I would push really hard to get KERS not introduced until Barcelona or something, to get the best you can from those first three flyaway races and try to get as many points as possible - because those early points really count."