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Hard miles ahead for fallen greats McLaren and Williams

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By Alan Baldwin

LONDON (Reuters) - McLaren and Williams, two of the greatest teams in Formula One history but starved of success for years, start the new season knowing that wins remain a long way off and the task is not getting any easier.

When Red Bull's motorsport consultant Helmut Marko recently gave his verdict on the sport's pecking order after pre-season testing, he was particularly dismissive of the two British outfits.

"McLaren and Williams are at the back," he told speedweek.com.

If that sounded harsh on McLaren, who set some fast laps, nobody would disagree with the assessment of Williams who arrived late to Barcelona's Circuit de Catalunya and were slowest.

While denying any crisis or chaos, Williams also announced on Wednesday, only days before the cars are due on track in Melbourne, that technical director Paddy Lowe was taking a 'leave of absence'.

Few observers expected to see him return.

With 17 constructors' titles, 19 drivers' crowns and a combined total of 296 grand prix victories between them, the teams from Woking and Grove in England have shown their pace mostly in sinking down the grid of late.

Neither of the two have won anything since 2012.

Once-dominant Williams, who turned the likes of Nigel Mansell, Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve into world champions, finished last overall out of 10 teams in 2018 with just seven points from 21 races.

McLaren, the team of the late Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost who also took Lewis Hamilton to the first of his five titles in 2008, ended up sixth and would have been seventh without the failure of Force India.

That could still be seen as an improvement after finishing ninth in 2015 and 2017.

"It’s obviously a very important year in that we show a big step forward," said team boss Zak Brown when the new McLaren was launched.

"When we made the change (from Honda to Renault engines) last year I think we were probably a little bit over-excited about how quickly we would return to the front, and we got that wrong.

"We’ve looked in the mirror to understand where we went wrong and made a lot of changes, both structurally and operationally. So this is a very important year to show forward progress."

CHASSIS SHORTCOMINGS

The combined times from the final week of testing in Barcelona showed McLaren holding up in midfield with Spaniard Carlos Sainz, who has replaced double world champion and compatriot Fernando Alonso, eighth fastest of 20 drivers.

British rookie team mate Lando Norris was 10th.

After three dismal years with Honda, whose engine is now in the back of the Red Bull and showing marked signs of improvement in power and reliability, McLaren switched to Renault last season.

That switch also highlighted shortcomings with the team's chassis, which McLaren had previously considered to be one of the best.

"I think we’ve done a better job working more closely with them to develop a car around the power unit. We know the power unit better and that was some of our issues last year," said Brown.

"I think we made the decision to change a little bit late and we had reliability issues, some of those were car design from not knowing the power unit and how to package it as well as we do.

"So I think it seems like they are in a better spot and we are certainly in a better position to capitalise on the year’s experience."

Mercedes-powered Williams, who also have an all-new lineup in Poland's Robert Kubica - who has not raced since a near-fatal rally crash in 2011 - and rookie Formula Two champion George Russell, have admitted they got things badly wrong.

Last year's car -- the first under Lowe's guidance -- was spectacularly bad and this year's, while handling better, needs plenty of work if they are to catch up with more competitive midfield rivals.

Reports of factory turmoil and shop floor chaos have been denuied but Williams accept the road to recovery will take time, even if they have been more of a yo-yo team bouncing around between second and 10th between 2003 and last year.

"If we have to take a bit more pain, we have to take a bit more pain. We’re prepared for that," deputy team principal Claire Williams told Reuters in Barcelona.

"We know that we’ve got problems and we’ve got to fix those problems."

(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Ken Ferris)

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