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McLaren fear being left behind when flag drops on new season

Hamilton and Button voice concerns about new car after Red Bull and Ferrari dominate testing sessions

Fernando Alonso and Ferrari exude a menacing air of confidence here ahead of tomorrow's first practice session for Sunday's opening Formula One race of the year, while over at champions Red Bull the team principal, Christian Horner, is doing everything he can not to look complacent. Meanwhile, Mercedes are cock-a-hoop after the speed they found in their new car in the final test in Barcelona. But at McLaren they are whistling to keep their spirits up after their unreliable new MP4-26 failed to set the world alight in any of its three test outings.

The intriguing disparities set the scene for another fascinating season, in which five drivers who have won the world championship go head to head – Alonso, the reigning title holder Sebastian Vettel, Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button and the evergreen Michael Schumacher, who is determined to wipe out the memory of an unconvincing comeback last year by recapturing past glories.

Then there is Nico Rosberg, just as determined to keep Schumacher under his thumb at Mercedes as he was throughout 2010 and seeking his first grand prix victory. Likewise Nick Heidfeld is looking for the top step on the podium for the first time in a long career after Robert Kubica's horrible rallying accident last month catapulted him from obscurity to the Pole's seat in the Renault team.

Or Felipe Massa, eager to regain the form that took him so close to winning the 2008 title. Mark Webber, dead set on making amends for that South Korean mistake which, arguably, cost him the title last year. There's rookie Paul di Resta, carrying the hopes of Scotland. Or... You get the picture. Like 2010, we are in for another bumper year, with new regulation changes stirring the pot and technicians' fertile minds all over again. One in which, apart from knowing that Red Bull and Ferrari are the best prepared, true form will remain difficult to predict with anything approaching complete accuracy until qualifying in Melbourne on Saturday afternoon.

Perhaps the most intriguing question surrounds McLaren: are things really so bad? Here is Button's take on the MP4-26: "I would be surprised if we can really match the Red Bull and the Ferrari when we get to Melbourne," he said. "That is a big ask. But never say never. I am quite impressed with the step we made with the car in the last test. But it's still not enough."

McLaren arrived in Melbourne with half the mileage in testing of Red Bull and Ferrari, whose cars appear blindingly quick. So is it the case that the MP4-26 just is not as well thought through as the Red Bull RB7, the Ferrari 150° Italia or the Mercedes MGP W02? Is it the lack of reliability that has thus far prevented the team from unlocking the potential of the car in cohesive running? Or is it something deeper-rooted that has its heart in McLaren's philosophy of using alternating design teams? Time will tell.

Hamilton insists he is not feeling frustrated, but may have been sending some coded messages to his team – that one world title will not be enough for him and that his clock may be ticking. "I'm not here to race 10 years and only win one or two world championships," he said. "I want to be one of the most successful F1 drivers of this generation. You have to continue winning and prove yourself time after time for people to really know that you are the best."

Despite rumours that he might consider a switch to Red Bull, Hamilton remains loyal to the team that gave him his chance in Formula One. "Look at the history of McLaren," he continued. "They are an incredible team. It's a great place to go to work and I feel privileged to be part of the team. They are fighters, and so am I."

Button has said that McLaren will be pleased if they leave Australia in third behind Red Bull and Ferrari, which shows you how much trouble they are in because that suggests they suspect Mercedes and Renault will be quicker, perhaps even Williams. "You're not going to be happy being the third-fastest team," Button admitted, "but I don't think it'll be a bad way to start the season. Considering the last few tests and our pace, you would be reasonably happy with that." The fact remains that that is very definitely not what McLaren's engineers envisaged two months ago.

One thing is clear: if anyone can turn things around, it is McLaren, as they proved with the initially lamentable MP4-24 which was turned into a winner by August after a terrible start to the 2009 season. But the big question is not whether McLaren can achieve such a transformation, but rather whether they can do it in time to keep Hamilton and Button in the title fight against two – maybe three – experienced opponents who are hell-bent on starting their seasons at a wholly competitive pitch.