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LONDON, March 25 (Reuters) - A joke in Formula One a week ago was that Lewis Hamilton had acquired a dog while Jenson Button was driving one.
If Button's McLaren is still a long way from being the fastest car on the track, the 2009 world champion put an end to some of the snickering when he took the lead - in a motor racing sense - in Sunday's Malaysian Grand Prix.
On paper, little may appear to have changed: Hamilton finished third for his first podium as a Mercedes driver while former team mate Button retired after a calamitous pitstop that robbed him of the chance of solid points.
However his Mexican team mate Sergio Perez took his first points for the team in ninth place and the car's performance was enough to give Button cause for hope.
"It's easy to say I could have been on the podium...I'm sure a lot of people would disagree with me but I think we had a chance to fight with the Mercedes," he told reporters afterwards.
"I think at worst it would have been fifth and we could have pushed the Mercedes. It's a good improvement from the last race. Only a week ago we never would have thought we'd be fighting for fifth, let alone a little bit better," he added.
"The positives are that we are improving and I can see that we will be even more competitive in China."
Button was ninth in the Australian season-opener when McLaren were shown to be struggling with a car that marked a departure from last year's race winner rather than being a simple evolution.
There was more embarrassment when it emerged that an impressive lap time set in the opening pre-season test at Jerez might have been due to a suspension part being fitted the wrong way round, lowering the ride height to a level unsustainable in race conditions.
The evidence from the Malaysian weekend was that a corner might have been turned.
"As a team we haven't had to (turn a corner) but the car has had to and I think we've made some good improvements," said Button.
"In general we've been trying things and trying to understand the way the aero is working. I think we have a much better understanding now. I think we're getting there.
"I don't think we'll have such a big step forward in China like we have done from the first race to this race but every little bit will count."
Team principal Martin Whitmarsh took plenty of flak after Australia, shouldering the blame for decisions made but also detecting glimmerings of hope.
"The week's been pretty tough. We expect to be competitive and Australia was a pretty big shock for us," he said before Sunday's race. "I can't remember too many race weekends that felt worse than that one. I think here we are starting to get a little bit of an understanding.
"I think we went probably a few ways in the wrong direction trying to deal with it in Australia and I think we've taken some very small, positive steps forward here but we need to be making a lot more of those before we are competing for grand prix victories." (Editing by Alison Wildey)