"It's simply too early to say anything definitive about the MP4-26 or indeed about any other 2011 F1 car."

Last week, McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh contradicted everything his two drivers had to say about the latest offering from the Woking-based team. He continued:

"Time without number, motorsport pundits have come unstuck when they've attempted to extrapolate testing times to predict race results, and I'm not about to join their number now."

True enough, there have been countless examples of journalists making predictions that have turned out to be about as correct and truthful as the time a British newspaper reported that a No.8 double-decker bus had been sighted on the moon.

However, when your two highest-paid employees are busy telling the world that their car is not capable of winning or indeed anywhere near the pace of Red Bull Racing and Ferrari, who is the public more likely to believe?

Over lunch a few weeks ago, McLaren's MD Jonathan Neale batted away suggestions from a handful of website journalists that all was not well with the MP4-26 following its debut the previous day at Jerez.

Witnesses at the track said it looked nervous, and was struggling to maintain consistent lines. The team insisted it was busy focussing on installation programmes. Neale was adamant that this was just testing and that despite their lap accumulations and pace over short-fuel runs, Red Bull, Ferrari and Renault were not that far ahead.

Point was, though, that they were far ahead and all the evidence suggests that the situation remains unchanged. McLaren's plan to utilise the late launch date as a means to fine-tune their car and unleash a race-winner has, unfortunately, failed.

Back in 1988, with F1 giants Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna on the driving strength, the team rocked up at Imola amid murmurings that it had got its sums wrong and that its Honda engine was going to be too thirsty with the new-for-that-year fuel limit and boost limit on turbo power units. Rivals said the late launch of the car would lead to insufficient time to develop it and that they would be in trouble while Ferrari - who had won the two previous races and been the pace-setters to date - were looking strong.

The first lap in anger saw the McLaren MP4-4 cross the line a staggering 1.5 seconds faster than anyone else had managed. And the rest is, as they say, history...

1992 saw Williams-Renault and Nigel Mansell, armed with their new technological wonder 'active ride-height suspension' - which had been constantly evolving since 1987 - blow the opposition into the water during a mammoth seven-day winter test at Estoril. They, too, went on to dominate that year.

In 2009, amid the still smouldering ashes of Honda's withdrawal, the Brawn BGP-001 lit up the timing screens in Barcelona at the last test of the pre-season, taking the pit-lane by storm and seeing Jenson Button claim six wins from the first seven races before ultimately clinching the title at Interlagos.

The common denominator? All were quick out-of-the-box...

McLaren's latest offering, the new MP4-26, is stunningly sleek, its J-shaped sidepods a wonder of aerodynamic design but disappointingly, its positive aspects end there.

To hear Button and Lewis Hamilton talk of their car in its current guise is to hear two men struggling to cope with the knowledge that there is the potential loss of a large number of points to the likes of Ferrari and Red Bull especially.

On current form, McLaren are in serious trouble. The first two days of final testing at Barcelona alone saw Red Bull and Ferrari accumulate over 200 laps each while McLaren covered a mere 131.

Those extra 78 laps the UK and Italian squads acquired are equivalent to more than a race distance of extra data-gathering and analysis - something of which McLaren is in dire need.

In contrast to Whitmarsh's claims, Hamilton was hardly impressed, declaring:

"Do I believe I have a car to win the world championship at the moment? I don't, no. We should definitely have been able to have continued from '08 and won another championship in the last two years, but we haven't.

"Looking at how the car has developed over the winter and seeing how it has come out, I was really, really excited getting into it thinking we really had hit the nail on the head - but we've missed that nail a little bit, although it's not like we don't have any other opportunities to get it right."

Button's thoughts weren't much different:

"I would be surprised if we can really match the Red Bull and the Ferrari when we get to Melbourne. I think that is a big ask considering the mileage that we have compared to them, and the pace in the last tests compared to them. I think that is going to be tricky - but never say never. I am quite impressed with the step that we have made with the car."

For their legion of fans, and for Whitmarsh, hope springs eternal that an emulation of the 2009 campaign - when a poor car at the start of the year was turned into a race-winner by the summer - will see McLaren provide both former champions with a chance to battle with the likes of Red Bull and Ferrari for top honours.

"To be on their (Red Bull and Ferrari's) pace for the first race is very tricky," Hamilton concedes. "There is still more work needed to be as quick as Red Bull, Ferrari and maybe another one or two teams."

Those who believe his boss is singing off a different sheet, take one step forward...

by Max Davies



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