By Andrew Benson
McLaren head into the new year hopeful they have built a car that can win back the Formula One title from Ferrari.
The new McLaren has been breaking records in winter testing
McLaren test driver Pedro de la Rosa is excited about the potential of the team's 2004 car after setting a record-breaking pace in winter testing.
De la Rosa said: "The car is quick. I realised as soon as I drove it that it is much quicker than the old car, even if we still have a lot of work to do.
"Last year's car was competitive, but the new one is a big step forward."
Kimi Raikkonen came within two points of beating Michael Schumacher to the world championship in 2003 despite driving an updated version of the car McLaren raced in 2002.
But the 2004 machine, the MP4-19, is a brand new concept, based on the MP4-18 that was tested but never raced in 2003.
The MP4-19 has smashed the lap record at two test tracks in Spain in December - with David Coulthard driving at Valencia and De la Rosa at Jerez.
The Spaniard said he felt at home in the car immediately.
"It's always the same when you drive a good car - it's always easy," De la Rosa said.
"It doesn't feel quick, but the time is just there.
"On my first day in the car, I broke the lap record. The team wanted me to slow down, but I told them: 'I'm not pushing'.
"Even so, the lap times kept coming down.
"I feel very positive. The car is so easy to drive. It is very sensitive to changes - responsive in a good way.
"If you have a problem, you change something, and the car behaves better."
The new McLaren has been comfortably the quickest car on the track when it has tested with other teams - but none of McLaren's rivals have yet built their new cars.
McLaren technical director Adrian Newey admitted that the MP4-19 still had some reliability problems to iron out, and warned that the lap times set by his drivers were effectively meaningless.
But he admitted to being content with progress so far.
"We hope to be challenging hard for the title next year, but you never know," he said.
"Things are looking reasonably good, but we can't be complacent. But we're pleased to be out and running the car."
De la Rosa added: "What is important for McLaren is not how quick we were compared to the other cars, but how much quicker MP4-19 is than MP4-17D.
Newey (left, with David Coulthard) is hopeful about the new car
"We were the only guys with a new car, so we have to be careful [about reading too much into the times].
"But the advantage we have is that we were the first to bring out a new car - and reliability is very important in F1 now, especially with the new rules on engines next year."
F1 teams are able to use only one engine per race weekend in 2004 - and if they have a problem and have to change one, they will be penalised by being moved back 10 places on the grid.
McLaren's engine partner Mercedes have built an all-new engine for the MP4-19.
The company have some catching up to do - their engine started last season a long way behind the standard-setting engine from BMW and was still around 30bhp down by the end of the season.
BMW say they have already matched the power figures produced by their 2003 engine with their 2004 design.
Newey would not comment on the performance of the new Mercedes engine.