McLaren conjure up surprise speed
McLaren are renowned for their ability to get themselves out of trouble with feverish car development but the Formula 1 community are wondering if they can pull off their biggest Houdini act yet at the Australian Grand Prix.
After three winter tests where they struggled for reliability and pace, McLaren marched to the top of the timesheets as Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton set the fastest times on the opening day of practice at the first race of the season.
McLaren personnel were seen arriving at Melbourne airport laden with boxes and boxes of new parts as the English team instigated a major overhaul of the lagging MP4-26.
The team decided to abandon their innovative but unreliable 'octopus' exhaust system - where the idea was to blow air across the floor with multiple exhaust exits - and install a regular exhaust with a new floor and front wing.
Team boss Martin Whitmarsh described the modifications as "risky" but predicted the gamble could garner a second in pace to help close the gap on pre-season front-runners Red Bull and Ferrari.
As twilight fell on the first day of 2011 season, the McLarens held sway at the top of the timings, with leader Button bettering Fernando Alonso's Ferrari by 0.147 seconds and Red Bull's champion Sebastian Vettel by 0.160secs.
There was every sign - not to mention a ripple of surprise in the paddock - that McLaren's gamble had paid off.
"It's encouraging and a step in the right direction," a tired but pleased Whitmarsh told BBC Sport.
"The truth is we had a variety of creative exhaust systems and we got some good performance. But we didn't have something that was sufficiently durable in my view, which is why I said to the engineers: 'Let's get something that can be solid and can deliver.' And that's what we chose to do. We needed something reliable that would perform here at the race.
"Everyone has worked hard to get the package here in 10 days flat."
Button also pointed to another encouraging first for McLaren - a car that was capable of completing a race distance, something the team were not able to achieve in testing.
"We've got reliability, which is something we haven't had all winter," Button, who is chasing a third straight win in Melbourne, explained.
"To have a car that can run for as many laps as we want to is great.
"Whatever we'd have done in testing we still wouldn't have been running quickest even if other cars had run on high fuel so I'm very happy with the step we've made."
Top times may be one thing but they do not tell the whole story in F1 - especially in practice when it is not known how much fuel each team has on board. The fact that the teams are still feeling their way with the new Pirelli tyres in the environment of a race weekend adds a further layer of uncertainty.
Tyre management and strategy will be crucial to determining the outcome of races this season as the Pirellis are not only degrading quickly but there is a great performance differential between the compounds.
But McLaren felt they could draw on another positive here, saying they were comfortable with the tyre performance even on Melbourne's bumpy and dusty temporary track.
Ferrari also said they had experienced "less obvious tyre degradation" while in contrast Red Bull's hard tyres were visibly worn during six-lap stints in first practice.
"I've got to say our guys really held the tyres together and exceeded expectations in durability and performance over long runs," added Whitmarsh.
While there are smiles all round at McLaren - even from former boss Ron Dennis, who is keeping his watchful eyes on proceedings - no one is getting carried away.
"It was an encouraging day," commented Whitmarsh. "All we are trying to do is keep our feet on the ground."
Many F1 insiders believe that neither Red Bull nor Ferrari have yet to unleash their true pace in qualifying trim.
Like the great white sharks lurking in Australian water, last season's top predators could well be circling their prey before launching an attack in qualifying.
But if McLaren have sharpened their teeth and taken a genuine step forward in time for the first grand prix then any already hotly-anticipated F1 opener has now got even hotter.