Familiar foe may soon erode McLaren's advantage

World champion Vettel in hot pursuit as Red Bulls belie their poor qualifying performance

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The Independent Online

The Australian Grand Prix finally answered several questions which have been a hangover from pre-season testing, in which it is notoriously impossible to assess with complete accuracy just how fast each team's car is because key factors such as fuel loads cannot be determined.

Clearly, the McLarens were the fastest cars in Albert Park, with Lewis Hamilton taking a comfortable pole position and Jenson Button dominating the race. But the Red Bulls were not as bad in the race as their qualifying performance had suggested, and nor were the Ferraris, which had seemed all at sea on Saturday. The Mercedes, however, flattered in qualifying only to deceive when it mattered, and Lotus were unlucky to lose Romain Grosjean early on and for Kimi Raikkonen to be mired in the midfield.

Williams' performance was a revelation, with Pastor Maldonado setting the sixth fastest lap and only losing sixth place when he crashed on the penultimate lap while harrying Fernando Alonso for fifth.

The Toro Rossos were also very quick, in the hands of Daniel Ricciardo and rookie Jean-Eric Vergne. Sebastian Vettel's best lap was only three tenths of a second slower than Button's fastest, and he was only 2.1sec adrift of the McLaren driver by the finish, but he agrees that the silver cars are the current favourites and that the two teams are not yet neck-and-neck.

"I think they were stronger this weekend," he stressed. "Look at the result yesterday, look at the result today. Jenson deserved to win; he was out of reach for us. I'm very happy with second, especially after the difficult day we might have had yesterday but nevertheless, this was race one. I think it was good to finally get back to racing and stop all the talk, to see some results.

"We always said in winter testing that McLaren look very strong. They had a very solid winter, no issues with the car. They did a lot of laps every day, so we expected them to be strong. Yesterday they did surprise everyone a little bit with their pace in qualifying. Today in the race I think it was looking a bit better for us, but nevertheless, they are the ones to beat.

"We will see what we get next weekend in Malaysia. If I remember last year, we were pretty dominant here and then qualifying there was just a couple of hundredths between Lewis and myself."

At Ferrari, meanwhile, the alarm bells are ringing. Team principal Stefano Domenicali said, before flying back to Maranello to persuade factory workers to push harder than ever to bring forward planned improvements: "Clearly we cannot be happy with a fifth place but, given how things went, Fernando's result is a positive one, but the result mainly of yet another super performance from the Spaniard."

At Mercedes, team principal Ross Brawn said: "With the development of the circuit and the track temperatures, we fell out of the working window, and struggled with tyre degradation. However, we remain positive as both here and over the winter tests we have demonstrated that we have a fundamentally quick car and we have a lot to build on. So we need to look at what happened today, unravel the problem, and work out where we need to improve."

Within McLaren the air of quiet optimism and resolve has been fanned by Button's success.

"We never underestimate our opposition, and undoubtedly there's a long, hard road ahead of us between now and the end of the season," team boss Martin Whitmarsh said. "But we've started well and in a few days' time we'll roll into Sepang, Malaysia, hungry to score a repeat victory.

"We are confident that we have a very good car, and now we will start developing it."