Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button confirmed the improvement in McLaren’s 2011 car by qualifying second and fourth for the season-opening Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne.
Defending world champions Sebastian Vettel was unstoppable for Red Bull, scoring an emphatic pole position, but Hamilton managed to demote his team-mate Mark Webber to the second row.
Button felt he hadn’t got as much out of the car in the final qualifying session as he might have done, but he was still fast enough to keep Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso at bay and secure fourth place.
It was a far cry from the team’s performance in early testing, which suggested McLaren might have produced a car that would struggle to compete at the front of the grid.
Team boss Martin Whitmarsh said: “Yesterday indicated that the car improvements we’d made in the past few weeks were significant, and today proved it. I therefore want to say a big thank you to all the guys here in Melbourne, and back in Woking, who have worked so hard to make those improvements possible.
“Lewis and Jenson, too, have done a great job this weekend – and the result, second and fourth places on the starting grid for tomorrow’s race, is very encouraging.
“Actually, Lewis could have gone a bit quicker still, had he not suffered a KERS Hybrid failure. But the parc ferme regulations allow us to make the necessary repairs, and both he and Jenson will therefore be looking forward to taking the fight to Red Bull on the streets of Albert Park tomorrow afternoon.”
Hamilton said: “I was really happy with my lap today. The car felt fantastic, and I owe it all to the guys back at the factory, in the design office and those building components. It was a brave decision to make such a dramatic change to the car, and a superb effort to deliver that change.
“However, although I was pleased with my performance today, my KERS Hybrid stopped working halfway round my final lap – I had 40 per cent left that I couldn’t deploy.
“Tomorrow is a long race and it won’t be won at the first corner – but I think the race is winnable from here and I’ll be giving Sebastian the race of his life tomorrow.”
Button said: “Q3 was a bit disappointing, I got stuck behind Nico [Rosberg], and Felipe [Massa] had a spin in front of me. It was all quite messy. So we didn’t get the most out of our package in Q3, but it’s nonetheless a massive step forward from what we had in testing.
“We should all be very happy with what we’ve done so far, and there’s still a lot we can build on: the car is still in its early stages because we haven’t done much testing.
“I’m really looking forward to tomorrow: I had a good race from fourth last year, and I think I can have a good race from fourth this year, too. We ought to be positive and think we can challenge for the win tomorrow.”