McLaren-Mercedes had anticipated entering the F1 2011 World Championship campaign as a bona fide title contender, aiming to come out of the starting-blocks in flying form - but as it is, the team looks likely to find itself rather more occupied with staving off the midfield onslaught following a torrid winter of testing.

Having missed out on both the drivers' and constructors' crowns in 2010 - in part due to not being on the outright pace in the early races - McLaren had vowed not to make the same mistake again twelve months on, repeatedly stressing the importance of hitting the ground running right from the word 'go'.

There were positive noises and plenty of optimism at the Berlin launch of the bold, radical MP4-26, but bucking the mantra that if a car looks quick, it will correspondingly be quick, the Woking-based outfit's new baby has proven to be anything but rapid around the test tracks of Valencia, Jerez and Barcelona. Perhaps, muse paddock observers, it is just a little too radical.

Worse still, reliability has been chronic, stymying all efforts to complete sufficient mileage to unlock the car's potential and leaving drivers Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button frustrated and freely admitting that Melbourne is going to come around too soon.

Comfortably the least well-prepared of the 'big three' heading Down Under for the curtain-raising Australian Grand Prix at the end of the month, McLaren will do well to begin with to outpace the likes of Lotus Renault GP and Mercedes Grand Prix.

Button's famous tyre-management skills will doubtless be a boon in the new Pirelli era, and the team will get it right and catch up in the end - as 2009 so ably proved - but whether that progress will come in time to rescue its chances of doing battle for world championship glory is another question altogether. The sneaking suspicion is that having not clinched the drivers' trophy since 2008 nor the constructors' laurels since 1998, that wait may be set to continue for at least another year... World Championship Predictions

Lewis Hamilton: 4th (2010: 4th)Jenson Button: 5th (2010: 5th)

McLaren-Mercedes: 3rd (2010: 2nd)



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