McLaren-Mercedes has not had 'a calamitous failure' of a season in F1 2010, insists Jonathan Neale, despite heading into the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix finale this weekend as the only one of the three front-running teams with neither driver truly any longer in contention to clinch the crown.

Jenson Button's shot at successfully defending his hard-fought 2009 title was extinguished last weekend at Interlagos - not, by all accounts, the most enjoyable three days of the 30-year-old's life - and the very same race all-but put a similar end to team-mate and fellow former world champion Lewis Hamilton's ambitions. The British star has vowed to keep on pushing right the way to the chequered flag at Yas Marina, but concedes that it will now take 'a miracle' for him to triumph, lying 24 points adrift of leader Fernando Alonso with just 25 remaining to play for [see separate story - click here].

Only two-and-a-half months ago, the Stevenage-born ace had sat atop the drivers' standings following his brilliant Belgian Grand Prix victory at Spa-Francorchamps, and some even had him installed as the favourite to go on and lift the laurels. Since then, though, McLaren's development pace - so impressive over the second half of the 2009 campaign - has seemed to stall, and in his efforts to compensate for a car that was not quite as quick as the Red Bull Racing RB6 or Ferrari F10, Hamilton went over-the-limit for three successive races, crashing out in both Italy and Singapore and then setting himself back with a hefty practice smash at Suzuka.

The runner-up spoils in the inaugural Korean Grand Prix a fortnight later were arguably a case of too little, too late for the 2008 title-winner, and whilst fourth position in Brazil has kept him mathematically still in the running, it is the very longest of long shots and would require a significant slice of misfortune to befall Messrs. Alonso, Webber and Vettel in the UAE.

Faced with accusations that McLaren has let both world championship trophies slip through its fingers, however, the Woking-based outfit's managing director Neale is adamant that the team has not let itself down in what has been one of the hardest-fought F1 campaigns in recent memory.

"F1 is about a continuous process of evolution and we change all the time," he told a special pre-Abu Dhabi Vodafone McLaren-Mercedes Phone-In Session, describing criticism that the team's development of its MP4-25 in the latter stages of the season has fallen short of expectations as unjustified. "[Development] hasn't been quick enough to overhaul the competition, but Red Bull and Ferrari have both had very strong upgrade parts, and on this occasion we didn't quite do enough to get the job done.

"Our season has not been a calamitous failure or a failure of our development system; it's been very close this year and a tough challenge, and there's a big difference between trying to nudge our way ahead of fierce competition and coming back from oblivion (in 2009), when everybody had written us off. The context is different.

"Some of the biggest improvements have come from cars whose teams had said they were not bringing any major upgrades [to that particular race]. Teams that have stopped developing their cars are getting quicker, because the engineers and drivers are learning to make the best out of updates that were added earlier.

"I think Red Bull have had the quickest car from the beginning of the year - the number of one-twos they have pulled off has been impressive. We can all look back over the season and pick out points where we had poor reliability or collisions or incidents and think 'there went our championship' - it's very tempting to do that, and we have done it before - but the reality is that it's a long season, made up of lots of different things.

"Clearly we have to go and look back at how we need to improve, but we do that every year - McLaren going back to the sixties has been a successful team, and it will continue to be a successful team. We are not complacent. We are in there fighting Ferrari for second place in the constructors' standings, and we will treat [Abu Dhabi] as we do any other race - we are fighters and we aim to win it."

Indeed, focussing now on the finale, the Englishman forecasts a Middle Eastern thriller, although he eschews the opportunity to offer his opinion on who he would like to see prevail should Hamilton not be able to - after the 14-time grand prix-winner revealed earlier this week that if he cannot emerge on top, then his preference would be for Mark Webber to do so [see separate story - click here], whilst Button cast doubt upon how well an Alonso success story would be received in the wake of the now infamous Hockenheim team orders row [see separate story - click here].

"I think it's great for F1 that it all goes down to the last race again," Neale affirmed. "I think Sebastian had a very strong first half of the year, and Mark has really dug in from Silverstone onwards and has done a great job. Ferrari have come on strong with their car and Fernando has hustled everybody. I think the drivers in contention would all be worthy winners, and I'm looking forward to Abu Dhabi."

"I wasn't that surprised by what Red Bull did in Brazil [in not switching Vettel and Webber around]. They've obviously had their challenges during the year, and when you've got a very competitive car and two good drivers it's very difficult - it's a delicate balance, and one that it's very easy to get wrong. The media are constantly waiting for you to slip or trip up or something, because it makes great news - but the drivers know what's at stake and they will sort it out on the circuit.

"Red Bull and Ferrari will be trying to bring last-minute upgrades, as will we. It should be a conventional race weather-wise, but I think reliability will play a big part, because it's getting to the end of the season and people are taking risks. I think it's going to be a really tough race - and it's going to be close."



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