By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) - New engine partners and a happy Fernando Alonso fueled fresh optimism at McLaren over the winter months -- and then testing came along.
March has not been kind to the fallen giants of Formula One, who have suffered more problems and done fewer laps on the test track than any other team.
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The missed mileage may be no more than a minor setback, and Alonso put in some notably quick times right at the end, but the team head to Australia for the March 25 season-opener with some uncertainty.
After a nightmare three years with Honda ended in a parting of the ways and a new relationship with Renault, McLaren need to deliver. Another season of disappointment would be more than fans could bear.
"There’s no hiding," executive director Zak Brown had said before the car took to the track for the first time, recognizing that McLaren would be in the spotlight, and those words apply now more than ever.
"But this team has won lots of world championships so we’re up for it," he added.
The past five years do not make happy reading for the sport's second most successful team, who finished ninth out of 10 in 2017 with a meager 30 points -- 638 fewer than champions Mercedes.
An outfit with 182 grand prix victories to their credit, and the team of champions such as Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Mika Hakkinen and Lewis Hamilton, have not won a race since the end of 2012.
McLaren's 12th and last driver's title was provided by Hamilton nearly a decade ago, in 2008, and they have yet to win a constructors' crown in this millennium.
NOTHING FUNDAMENTALLY WRONG
McLaren lost track time to technical issues on five of the eight days of testing, with a sixth virtually wiped out by snow.
Turbo trouble and an engine change on the final day at the Circuit de Catalunya cost Alonso five hours of running, but he then returned to pump out the second fastest time of the day.
"It is a new partnership with Renault -- new packaging, completely new packaging for the car as well. This is testing, give us time. It is fine," racing director Eric Boullier had said in response to earlier issues.
"There will be a few glitches but we haven't lost our ability to design fast cars."
The sight of a stricken car returning to the pits on a recovery truck will soon be forgotten if McLaren come good in Australia and beyond, however.
"There is nothing fundamentally wrong with the car," said Alonso.
"The issues we have had are under control. Unfortunately we keep discovering small things but that is making us in a strong position for Australia because we are strengthening all the small things."
McLaren's papaya orange and blue car has caught the eye also for the large expanses of bodywork unadorned by sponsor logos, and a return to form would help fill them.
A top three finish will be a big challenge, with Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull taking all but one podium place between them in last season's 20 races.
But Red Bull have the same engine as McLaren, who boasted last year that they had one of the best chassis on the grid, and will be a benchmark.
So too will Red Bull-owned Toro Rosso, who have been pounding out laps and respectable times with what now looks like a surprisingly reliable Honda engine.
The possibility that Honda may have come good at last will be hard for the fans to swallow if McLaren fail to live up to expectations.
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Pritha Sarkar)