Phil Prew estimates that despite winning the last race in Shanghai, McLaren-Mercedes is still in the region of three-to-five tenths of a second shy of the pace of current F1 2011 World Championship leaders Red Bull Racing - but he insists the team is working as hard as it can to reduce that deficit.

After defending F1 World Champion Sebastian Vettel breezed to pole position and victory in both Australia and Malaysia, the opening part of the season looked like turning into a walk in the park for the young German - but Lewis Hamilton clearly had other ideas, and courtesy of vastly-improved tyre-management skills and a masterclass in controlled aggression, the British star turned the tables on Red Bull by returning McLaren to the top step of the podium in the Chinese Grand Prix just over a fortnight ago.

Following a short hiatus, the F1 circus is now heading to Istanbul for this weekend's Turkish Grand Prix - scene of a one-two for the Woking-based outfit last year, after Vettel removed both himself and RBR team-mate Mark Webber from the equation with an overtaking manoeuvre bordering on desperation. Whilst hoping that McLaren will be able to similarly ramp up the pressure on the early-season pace-setters twelve months on, principal race engineer Prew is equally well aware that the team needs to keep one eye in its rear-view mirrors, too.

"The break has been well-received by everybody who has been travelling and working so hard for the last three races," he told a special Vodafone McLaren-Mercedes Phone-In Session. "It's given us a good opportunity to reflect on our performance - where we were strong, where we were weak - and to push forward developments that have come out of that and focus on continual improvements in pretty much every area.

"We have been working on improving our tyre utilisation, and there is the continued desire to bring more downforce to the car. We've had our drivers and our test-drivers into the technical de-briefings, and it has been a good opportunity to find development direction.

"We don't have the fastest car at the moment, and Red Bull Racing is still the team that we need to close the gap to - I think we are between three tenths and half-a-second off their pace - but we are aiming to improve the performance of our car right the way across the range, both in qualifying and in the races.

"We are adding upgrades to the car in Turkey which hopefully will help, and as we have seen over the first three races, the differences between the cars do vary from track-to-track. I think Turkey should be a reasonably strong track for us, and if the developments deliver the performance and we utilise the tyres well, we can be competitive - but of course, we are also conscious that everybody else will be trying to improve their cars at the same time.

"For sure, we never underestimate Ferrari's performance, and they can take a big step once they get a better understanding of their car and get the full potential out of it. At times - certainly in the races - Ferrari have shown very strong pace. They don't seem to have hooked it up in qualifying just yet, but we are fully aware of the need to both close down Red Bull and keep a wary eye on the cars behind like Ferrari, Mercedes and Renault, who have shown very good pace as well."

Having alluded to the tyre situation, Prew is quick to praise Pirelli for its pivotal contribution - along with the love-it-or-hate-it DRS system - to 'some very exciting racing' this year that has been very 'different' to recent seasons and a trend that he forecasts will continue.

Predicting that tyre degradation will be 'a major factor' and 'a challenge' around the 'very demanding' Istanbul Park Circuit, he hints at the likelihood of a three-stop grand prix and - whilst dismissing the viability of doing what Webber light-heartedly suggested after China and deliberately sacrificing qualifying speed in order to retain several sets of new tyres for race day - the Englishman does concede that the approach adopted by Hamilton in Shanghai in conserving one of his sets of Q3 rubber could be a useful tactic for the future.

"We have to be a bit more dynamic on the pit wall than we were in the past, both in terms of receiving information from driver feedback and observing lap times with regard to tyre performance and degradation," he explained of the new Pirelli era. "With Bridgestone, we had a lot of experience of those tyres, and going into the grands prix, we had a fair idea of how they would perform, so we could plan the race out.

"This year, we are still learning about the tyres, to be honest - and every time we go to a new track, we are seeing a slightly different performance profile. They don't last as long, and that means we have to be much more on our toes and adaptable to what other cars are doing and how our car is using its tyres. It's a lot busier with more pit-stops and decisions and that's quite a challenge, but we have a very strong team at the track and back at the McLaren Technology Centre working specifically to optimise the strategy for both cars."



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