After a challenging time during pre-season testing, the outfit doubts it currently has the package that Jenson Button and Sergio Perez need to be comfortably at the front.
Sporting director Sam Michael said on Friday that McLaren was aware of the areas it needs to improve, but reckoned it would take some time for progress to be realised.
"Definitely, we are not where we need to be at this point in time," he said.
"We made quite a few changes to the car over the winter, and we still believe they will be good for the course of the season.
"But we are still unoptimised in the areas we need to be, which comes from our own knowledge of where they are not as good as what they should be.
"So we still have some work to do on the car. But it's a long season."
RADICAL WINTER CHANGES
McLaren elected to make radical changes to its MP4-28 this year, which included a switch to pull-rod front suspension, a higher chassis nose section and very aggressive bodywork around the exhaust area.
The scale of those changes contributed to a winter of struggling to get the best out of the car. But Michael remains convinced the strategy will ultimately pay off by delivering better update opportunities later in the campaign.
"The intention was to have a winning car right here in Melbourne. But, even if we don't, at least over the course of the season it offers a lot more development potential.
"And we can see that as well in the factory. We can see the areas it is improving. We are just not quite there yet."
When asked if McLaren was expecting to be behind likely frontrunners Red Bull, Mercedes, Lotus and Ferrari in Melbourne, Michael said: "We don't know to be honest, until we get through a race weekend. We can't see at this point.
"In practice we haven't done much more than we did in testing. We still don't have any knowledge of what people have done until we get through an official session, and then you know everyone is right on the limit.
"Right now we don't have enough information, but we will after qualifying and the race."
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