Button and Hamilton admit McLaren have some early catching up to do

Their new supercar may be eye-poppingly quick, as David Tremayne found out this week, but the British team's World Championship preparations have so far misfired
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The Independent Online

Lewis Hamilton is in his element, laughing deeply even though the bright Papaya Orange McLaren is slithering sideways so crazily round Top Gear's streaming wet track in Surrey that he is having to monitor forward progress through the side window.

It is safe to say that he's a lot happier with this elegant MP4-12C supercar than he is with the performance to date of McLaren's ambitious and ground-breaking MP4-26 with which he and his team-mate Jenson Button will be challenging Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber for the World Championship this season.

Here, at the track at Dunsfold Aerodrome that the BBC TV programme use for their speed challenges, it does not matter that the car is yawing wildly at 150mph, as Hamilton exclaims happily: "Parts of the track, that smooth Tarmac there, see it? They're sooo slippery."

But if the MP4-26 behaves with similar abandon in Spain next week, McLaren know they will be in trouble when they get to Melbourne at the end of the month for the season's opening Grand Prix. Sliding means lack of downforce, and in Formula One downforce is everything. What is entertainment (albeit, stomach-churning, nerve-shredding, eye-popping entertainment) in McLaren's stunning new roadcar, will be lap-time wasting anathema in the F1 car.

The general feeling in the three pre-season test meetings held thus far is that Red Bull and Ferrari are the top dogs, and that McLaren have a lot of work to do. There is one more test next week, in Barcelona, before the circus heads Down Under for the rescheduled season-opener (the Bahrain Grand Prix was postponed because of the troubles in the Middle East). It will be critical for the two Britons and their team.

"We've had a few issues, and we haven't done a lot of laps," Hamilton admits of the two test sessions he's done so far with the new car. "I did only 38 laps one day. It's nothing major, but there's been a mechanical issue with the rear end. You'll go out once it's been fixed and it goes [wrong] again...But I did 107 laps at the last test, which was encouraging, but we are still quite behind on mileage. We won't be able to catch all of that up, but I'm hoping that it won't hurt us too much."

Button concurs. "It's been disappointing and we're limited on parts and reliability and as a result haven't yet developed the set-up," he says, and for him this is perhaps even more critical because he admits he does not like an oversteering car as much as Hamilton does. He has been looking forward to his greater input into the design, helping him to tame the car more than he was able to last year's MP4-25, but so far it's been frustrating.

"It's complicated by having Kers back [a system that allows the driver to boost power for short bursts], something I'd never run before, and the movable rear wing, no adjustable front wings any more, and the switch to Pirellis and their wear characteristics," the 2009 world champion continues. "The car is very different on them. We've done some good running but we haven't yet seen [good] pace. We have a good standard set-up, but we need to improve. So the final test in Barcelona next week is going to be really important for us."

Currently, Red Bull and Ferrari have been setting the pace, but with very high tyre degradation a strong feature of the season to come since F1 switched from Bridgestone to Pirelli rubber, it's still hard to predict who will be ultimately quick. "I don't see anyone else who might be what you call dangerous," Hamilton says. "The Renault is quite quick, especially on the straight which suggests it might not have outright downforce, but you don't know what fuel loads people have been running."

When Vettel and Alonso were very quick testing recently in Barcelona both, for instance, were on low fuel and Pirelli's supersoft tyre which was worth a second-and-a-half a lap, whereas Hamilton ran his McLaren on a harder tyre. So there's light at the end of the tunnel. It is one of the aspects that make the sport so fascinating at this time of year, when anything seems possible for the season to come.

"Mercedes and McLaren will be there or thereabouts," Hamilton continues. "There's Renault and Williams, maybe Force India...And the Toro Rosso looks ridiculously fast. They could be the most interesting one to watch.

"It's really fantastic if you can have a start to a season like Ferrari did last year. This year they have pace and reliability and they've done hundreds of laps, so it'll be easier for them. Likewise Red Bull. But in all my years actually racing with McLaren I have to say that I haven't had many reliability issues so I'm not worrying about that too much now.

"Performance-wise we'll be able to catch up at some stage, but I'm hopeful that it'll be earlier than in some other years. It's always difficult to catch up. In 2007, 2008 we were pretty much on a par with Ferrari. They were about a 10th of a second ahead in testing and it stayed that way for the first couple of races. But that was OK. Where we are starting now, we have to come up with twice the progress to close the gap to Ferrari and Red Bull, and that makes the challenge tougher."

Out on the track at Dunsfold, Hamilton and Button are nevertheless their usual relaxed and affable selves, enjoying their afternoon. The last time Hamilton was seen "hooning" around in a road car he was charged for the act in Melbourne at last year's Grand Prix when he fishtailed it out of Albert Park in view of the police.

These wheelspins are all perfectly acceptable, though, as the MP4-12C copes with conditions guaranteed to send most cars slithering into the weeds. But whether the MP4-26 proves to be as impressive remains to be seen. If it is, Hamilton and Button will have a shot at retrieving their title crowns. It is but one of the fascinating posers as the World Championship battle gears up.