By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) - Local hero Fernando Alonso will be the center of attention when Formula One's pre-season testing starts up in southern Spain on Sunday but the McLaren driver has done his best to lower expectations.
As the Spaniard warned fans when the new McLaren-Honda MP4-30 was unveiled on Thursday, there are sure to be problems between now and the season-opener in Australia on March 15.
McLaren are starting a new era with Honda, after two decades with Mercedes, and much of the paddock buzz when the cars get out on track in Jerez will focus on how the new Japanese power unit performs.
"Our first target will be to learn the maximum from the car at the pre-season tests, understand the package, and extract as much performance as possible," said double world champion Alonso.
"That won't be easy or trouble-free, but we're ready for that," added the man who left McLaren under a cloud of controversy in 2007 and returns after five frequently frustrating years at Ferrari.
McLaren ran Honda's RA615H engine last November in a test that was plagued by gremlins.
"We don't expect to be pumping in 100 laps a day. It is going to be lots of system checks. Don't expect too much from us too soon. It is about working out the reliability aspects of the engine," said Alonso's team mate Jenson Button.
Others suspect McLaren could be more competitive than expected.
"I expect Williams to be strong again, but the big question mark is McLaren with Honda," Red Bull's Australian Daniel Ricciardo said this week.
"They have obviously got the potential to do very well. That is probably the one that everyone is going to be watching to see what sort of step they have made and what they bring to the table."
Renault and Ferrari will also be looking for signs that they have closed the gap to Mercedes after being outperformed in the first year of the V6 turbo hybrids.
Last year's ugly cars are history, with those seen so far testifying to the success of rule changes to make them more aesthetically pleasing, and much of the talk will now be about the personalities.
Double world champion Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes team mate Nico Rosberg will renew their duel for supremacy but there will also be the novelty of four times champion Sebastian Vettel stepping out in Ferrari red.
Dutch 17-year-old Max Verstappen gets down to work at Toro Rosso as Formula One's youngest ever race driver along with Spanish rookie Carlos Sainz, while Russian Daniil Kvyat begins his Red Bull adventure.
Lotus, once the works Renault team, start a new partnership with Mercedes.
The paddock will also feel emptier, with only eight teams attending the first of three tests in Spain.
Marussia and Caterham are gone, barring any late rescue bids, while Force India are staying away until Barcelona when they say their new car will be ready.
(Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)