The new three-pronged design team at McLaren International admit that they are pleased with the way the new MP4-18 has turned out after a long winter and spring of research and development.

The new car hit the track for the first time on Tuesday 20 May, when test driver Alex Wurz shook it down at Paul Ricard ahead of a three-day session. The Austrian will continue to drive the sole MP4-18 at the French test, while team-mates David Coulthard and Kimi Raikkonen concentrate of fine-tuning the older MP4-17D ahead of next weekend's Monaco Grand Prix. McLaren has opted to take the revised car to the Principality in the interests of proven reliability.

The MP4-18 incorporates a number of visible differences over its predecessor, including a shorter and lower nose, a more tightly packaged rear and a slight dorsal fin shaping to the engine cover, but aerodynamicist Adrian Newey insists that the car isn't as radical as some outsiders were led to believe.

"The general design objectives are always the same - to make the car quicker - with all the fundamentals of improving aerodynamic efficiency, reducing centre of gravity height, improving the handling of the car and hence the cornering performance," he said.

"The 2003 car is evolutionary is some respects but, in other respects, it is quite different. We've tried to package the car tighter, so it's a lot smaller than the MP4-17. We've really pushed quite hard to come up with an aerodynamically efficient package, which also allows a low centre of gravity. We're trying to get the aerodynamics and the mechanical side of the car to work in harmony.

"The new car is the first car that's been designed specifically with the Michelins in mind. Really, it's about making proper use of the tyres in terms of the tow angles, the camber angles, presenting the tyre to the ground in the optimum way. And that has been a learning curve of Michelin's. So we're hoping that that clean sheet of paper approach to being able to optimise the car around the tyres will pay dividends."

The team's latest addition, chief designer Mike Coughlan, admits that the car has progressed considerably from the first draft that he was presented with.

"The MP4-18 is driven from a 'spec-sheet' given to me by Adrian," he revealed, "That spec-sheet ends up at about nine revisions before it's finalised. We've concentrated on the details and I think it sets a new standard for this company.

"The car will look significantly different. Adrian's done a fantastic job with the shape and the detail of the shape, although it's difficult within the current rules to be radically different."

Fellow designer Neil Oatley, a long-standing member of the McLaren operation, admits that opting for revolution - however minor - over the usual trend of developing the previous year's machine was a strenuous task.

"The last winter has been extraordinarily difficult and busy for us," he confirmed, "It's the first time for many, many years that we've developed an existing car at the same time as designing a completely fresh car really from the ground up.

"I think [MP4-18] is a big step forward from where we were. A lot of effort, and a lot of time, has gone into the car, spread over a longer period of time. I think we've ended up with a structurally superior car, much more tightly packaged, much more weight-efficient, and we are expecting quite a significant improvement in lap times because of all of that."

Newey remains equally confident that the new car will out-perform the venerable MP4-17 within days of its first run, but is guarding his optimism until the car has had time to prove itself on the track.

"At this time with the car just about to run, it's always slightly nervous, I suppose," he said, "On paper, in terms of our wind tunnel figures and our simulation on the car overall, the performance improvement looks a reasonable step. But, of course, simulation is exactly that - it's a simulation and may not be 100 per cent accurate. And. it's that tentativeness at the moment - to see whether our calculations are correct or whether there's some hidden nasties that are waiting to bite us - that we've got to try to understand."

However, should the car prove to be the 'Ferrari-beater' that many in Formula One hope and expect, Newey is under no illusion that some of the ideas he has incorporated will gradually find their way onto other machines up and down the grid.

"Well, there are some differences to the car which will slowly come out," he said enigmatically, "Some of them are, visually, fairly obvious and others are much more subtle and really only under the skin. But, of course, teams have a way of winkling out these details one way or the other and finding out about them, so I'm sure that, over the coming months, some of those details will become knowledge at least to other teams if not, maybe, public knowledge."

No date has yet been set for the race debut of the MP4-18, but McLaren MD Martin Whitmarsh has suggested that a first taste of the new car will be enough to have Coulthard and Raikkonen clamouring to drive it competitively.