The MGP W03.
The MGP W03. Getty Sport Images - Mark Thompson

McLaren wary of Schumacher challenge

EVEN Michael Schumacher's belief that his Mercedes will be as strong in the race here as it was in qualifying in Australia last week has not put Jenson Button off his stride in the lead-up to this weekend's Malaysian Grand Prix.

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"Mercedes are quick, and we thought they were going to be a much stronger threat in Australia," Button's team chief Martin Whitmarsh said. "If you had said to me before the start, I'd have said that Mercedes were the biggest threat. They were very quick in a straight line, and I thought they were going to be a handful for us. As it turned out, I think they underperformed. But they can do a better job than they did in Australia."

Schumacher said he does not believe he will suffer the loss of race pace that marred the team's opening-race performance. And there is a general belief that Mercedes' controversial aerodynamic DRS/F-duct system will give them an advantage along Sepang's very long straights.

"We have an innovation that gives us some performance but I don't think it's a huge performance," the German said. "We'll find out. The basic positive is that we definitely have a much improved car. We still need to learn it and understand it in all circumstances to take benefit and performance from it.

"We can improve quite a bit with race pace. I don't think we would have been able to achieve a podium in Melbourne if we went all the way through - maybe fifth was the best we could have had. But we have good ideas on what to improve. Whether it means we will be on the podium is another story as there are at least four cars which are very strong, with the two McLarens and two Red Bulls."

Button has the air of a man who believes his car will be even better suited to the fast sweeps of the Malaysian track. "We've got a car that works well in the high-speed stuff," he said. "The challenge this weekend will be to find the right balance. At this stage, you're still learning about the car and how to get the best from it. But the engineers understand how our car is strong.

"The first race was good but when the circuit cooled it was tricky keeping the tyre temperature. That shouldn't be a problem here with the heat and humidity but Pirelli's hard tyre works in a low temperature range and there will be a lot of sliding around. The weather is bound to play a part and I'd rather it stays dry because when it rains here it's all or nothing. Then you're floating, which is a horrible feeling. But I love this race. It's a real challenge."

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