Motor racing-McLaren expecting tight battle in first few races
LONDON Feb 27 (Reuters) - McLaren go into Formula One's final pre-season test in Barcelona on Thursday with plenty of new parts to try out and untroubled by anything they have seen so far from their championship rivals.
Team managing director Jonathan Neale said the first two tests in Jerez and Barcelona this month had thrown up no unpleasant surprises.
"Our car appears normal, we've had no major issues. The drivers report that the handling is good. Sergio (Perez) is getting to learn to drive a McLaren, which has slightly different characteristics to what he's been used to.
"I don't think we've seen anybody yet do a lap time that we felt we couldn't have done if we'd changed the fuel load," added Neale, whose team won seven races last year but finished third overall.
Eight different drivers have been quickest on each of the eight days of testing so far with four teams - Ferrari, Lotus, McLaren and Mercedes - top of the timesheets.
The surprise has been that champions Red Bull have yet to be fastest but times mean little in testing where teams are using different settings and running on different fuel loads according to their plans.
"To be honest. I think most of us are out there just trying to make sure that the car that we've got is rational, behaves like the simulation and to give a chance for the drivers to get a feel for it," said Neale.
"But the track temperatures have been so cold and the tyres have grained up really quickly so you've probably got one or two laps where the tyres are in the sweet spot and then you are graining and after that it's very difficult."
Neale, speaking to British reporters, said there was a lot of speculation about where the teams were relative to each other in performance terms.
"I think most teams will be taking the pre-Melbourne spec to this next test, we've got quite a large package of bits and pieces going," he said.
"But, a bit like the beginning of last season, nobody stands out as being head and shoulders above everybody else at the moment and nobody appears to be hanging off the back either."
The season starts in Australia on March 17, with McLaren the only team in the top four to have a changed line-up now that Mexican Perez has joined Jenson Button as replacement for 2008 champion Lewis Hamilton, now at Mercedes.
Last season was marked by seven different winners in the opening seven races before teams got to grips with the new Pirelli tyres.
The compounds have changed again, designed to ensure more pitstops and encourage overtaking.
Neale said this season, with stable regulations and the last year of the V8 era before a new V6 turbo engine with energy recovery systems is introduced in 2014, would also be very competitive.
"I wouldn't expect there to be a big shake up. It'll be a really close start to the season and then it will be about who has to go back and fix something that's wrong and who can then really get a foot down in terms of development and try and pull some clear headway," he said.
With cold conditions in Spain, Neale expected a pattern to emerge after the first three or four races once teams had raced at some hot weather circuits like Australia, Malaysia and Bahrain. (Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Pritha Sarkar)
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