Lewis Hamilton's Singapore win cut Ferrari's lead over McLaren to three points
McLaren are aiming to end the 2009 season on a high by snatching third place in the constructors' championship from old rivals Ferrari.
After Lewis Hamilton's win in Singapore on Sunday, McLaren are three points behind Ferrari with three races to go.
"We are not in the championship hunt but we are in the hunt for performance and understanding," said McLaren managing director Jonathan Neale.
"Not least because we would like to beat our colleagues at Ferrari."
While Ferrari have stopped developing their 2009 car and are focusing all their development efforts on next season, McLaren added a range of updates to their car in Singapore.
But Neale said he did not know whether they would be enough to make their car competitive at the Japanese Grand Prix this weekend.
McLaren's weakness this year has been on the sort of long, medium- and high-speed corners that abound at Suzuka.
Race was intense - Hamilton
Neale said the race would provide a useful gauge of McLaren's progress since Hamilton finished a lapped 12th at June's British Grand Prix at Silverstone, which has similar characteristics to Suzuka.
"We don't expect to have an easy time in Japan by any means," Neale said, "but a mark of how far we have come this season will be a comparison between our performance this weekend versus the torturous time we had at Silverstone this year.
"The basic circuit characteristics are broadly the same. If you look at the average circuit speed at Suzuka it is up there with Silverstone.
"This year we have done well at the higher downforce and lower speed circuits like Hungary, Singapore and Valencia, so we are bracing ourselves a bit for a tougher fight this weekend.
"It will be interesting to see just how far we have come since Silverstone.
"But we know that there are one or two teams out there who, as you drop downforce, do run particularly well. The usual suspects will be up there in Japan I suspect."
Heading into Japan, McLaren have 59 points and Ferrari 62. Their nearest challengers are Toyota on 49.5 points.
Brawn can clinch the constructors' championship in Japan if they score at least 7.5 points more than second-placed Red Bull.
And Brawn driver Jenson Button can win the drivers' title if he scores five points more than team-mate Rubens Barrichello.
Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel is the only other drivers still in with a mathematical chance of winning the championship.
But he is 25 points behind Button with only 30 remaining and must out-score the Englishman by six points in Japan if he is to keep his slim hopes alive
The characteristics of the Suzuka track are expected to suit the Red Bull car, and Brawn are expecting to struggle - insiders are predicting their team will struggle to score more than a handful of points.