|© AP Photo/Rob Griffith
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Jenson Button's hopes of another Australian Grand Prix win appear remote after a woeful first day's practice Friday which McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh described as his hardest day in racing.
Button, who has won three of the past four Melbourne races, was a disappointing 11th fastest after the first two practice sessions Friday in a revamped McLaren race car.
Button was 2.4 seconds off pace-setter and defending world champion Sebastian Vettel's time of 1 minute, 25.908 seconds, while his new teammate Sergio Perez was a further quarter of a second back.
A candid Whitmarsh, who has been in F1 for more than 20 years, said the team's performance made for "one of the hardest days I can recall."
"We were lacking overall grip, consistency, we had understeer, poor ride, so a very difficult day. And one where we didn't go forward during the course of the day, so that's a bit of a concern," he said.
"Clearly we've given ourselves a base to improve upon and hopefully we do so tomorrow. But it was disappointing and a tough day for the team."
Button was equally frank after his second lacklustre practice run.
"We're 2.4 seconds off the pace, but I'd be surprised and very happy if we're in the top ten tomorrow," he said.
McLaren made dramatic changes to its car in the off-season compared to the gentler tinkering of its rivals.
"We made quite a lot of changes to the car running into this season, and at the moment we don't properly understand how to get the best out of the car," Whitmarsh said.
Whitmarsh said the decision to overhaul the car design was to provide more development upside in the second half of the season while rivals would have less opportunity to improve. The cost, as was apparent Friday, was that there would be struggles early in the season to understand the car's performance.
"This feels pretty tough at the moment, but we're a strong team and we'll find a way through."
Button said it was important for the team to examine Friday's data and quickly address the car's handling problems.
"We've got to really work on why the car is like it is in terms of ride and downforce," he said.
"It's definitely not the place where we wanted to start the season, but all is not lost yet. We're very good at turning it around. We've had difficult times before and I don't think this is as bad as that."
And the Englishman was still optimistic for McLaren's chances in Melbourne.
"I still think we can improve the car a lot here," he said. "We can still do a better job with the car that we have today."