Jenson Button has already conceded that he would be 'surprised' if McLaren-Mercedes can take the fight to early 2011 pace-setters and arch-rivals Red Bull Racing and Ferrari come the Melbourne curtain-raiser at the end of the month, but BBC's triumvirate of F1 pundits have gone rather further than that, variously and scathingly describing the troubled new MP4-26 as 'a mess', carrying 'a fundamental issue' and even warranting the construction of 'a whole new car'.

Despite Button's optimism after lapping second-quickest to Red Bull's Mark Webber on the opening day of the final pre-season test around Barcelona's Circuit de Catalunya this week [see separate story - click here], expectations at Woking heading into the forthcoming campaign are clearly not as high as had been hoped for, with poor initial reliability having hampered set-up and development work. Never mind not being able to take on the likes of RBR and Ferrari, right now the MP4-26 scarcely looks capable of worrying Lotus Renault GP.

"I would be surprised if we can match the Red Bull and the Ferrari when we get to Melbourne," mused the 2009 F1 World Champion, undefeated Down Under since his title-winning year. "It's a big ask. To be on their pace is going to be tricky, [but] never say never. I am quite impressed with the step that we have made with the car from last week. However, it is still not enough."

Indeed, on the basis of Tuesday's running, the reliability problems still frustratingly persist, and just three days of testing now remain before the flag drops on the new season with the Australian Grand Prix on 27 March. McLaren has not claimed the drivers' title since Lewis Hamilton triumphed in 2008, and for one of the most successful teams in the history of the sport, there have been no constructors' laurels for more than a decade. Martin Brundle, David Coulthard and Eddie Jordan fear the MP4-26 is emphatically not the car to turn that tide.

"I watched the [McLaren] out on-track a week ago and it's a mess," contended Brundle, a former McLaren driver himself. "It didn't slow down; it didn't turn in; it couldn't get the power down. Lewis looked absolutely at sea in the thing. Clearly, they have a fundamental issue."

The Englishman's new BBC F1 commentary box partner Coulthard concurs that although, as 2009 ably proved, the multiple world champions have the experience, resources and expertise to play catch-up and get on terms with the front-runners, in such a fast-paced sport, by the time they do so - as 2009 similarly proved - it will likely be too late to save Messrs. Button and Hamilton's title chances.

"If your car doesn't run quick straight out-of-the-blocks then it is a problem," reflected the Scot, according to The Daily Telegraph. "By the time you sort it out, everyone will have brought their second and third upgrades along."

Ex-team owner Jordan, meanwhile, has pointed the finger of blame firmly at McLaren's recent practice of alternating its designers from one year to the next, stymying continuity in a testing-deprived era in which just such continuity is key. The ever-outspoken Irishman fears the team's bid for glory in F1 2011 may be over before it has even begun.

"I have a real problem with McLaren over this whole concept," the 63-year-old admitted. "Where is the thought process? Where is the evolution? [Red Bull chief technical officer] Adrian Newey doesn't do things like that. No major, winning team currently uses that system. I don't get it. Both of the drivers are very unhappy. It probably needs a whole new car at this early stage.

"McLaren have done this now too often. This was all very fine in David's era when there was a test team, test-drivers, a whole support act behind you - that is why McLaren and Ferrari were always strong - but I'm sorry, that is no longer possible and they are suffering as a result."



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