Reigning world champion Sebastian Vettel admitted on Saturday his new Red Bull car was "not the easiest" to drive after he struggled in Formula One qualifying for the second week running.
Vettel complained the Red Bull lacked balance after he qualified sixth for the Malaysian Grand Prix. However, the German was promoted to fifth on the grid after Kimi Raikkonen was penalised for a gearbox change.
For Vettel, it has been a difficult start to 2012 compared to last season, when he dominated with 11 wins and 15 pole positions and wrapped up his second straight world title with time to spare.
"I didn't feel that good in the car and was struggling to find the balance, so I didn't get everything out of it for one flying lap," he said.
"There's not been much time to react since Australia -- only one week. The McLarens were strong in Australia and they are strong here, so they are the ones to beat."
While McLaren's Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button booked the front two slots for the second straight race, Vettel has not done better than the third row so far this season.
At last week's season-opener in Australia, he separated Button and Hamilton on the podium thanks to a large slice of luck when a safety car intervention allowed him to nab second spot.
Vettel has a golden chance to join Juan Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher as only the third driver to win three straight world titles, but his confidence will not have been helped by this year's early form.
"I think in race trim we might look a bit better, but nonetheless I think you can see that we don't have the easiest car to drive, we are aware of that and are pushing very hard," he said.
Hamilton suggested Red Bull were hurting badly from a ban on so-called "blown diffusers", a device they pioneered with channels exhaust fumes to increase downforce, making the car easier to handle.
"It's quite clear that last year they had a huge advantage with the blown diffuser and they don't have that now. Everyone's a lot more equal," Hamilton said.
Red Bull's Mark Webber, who shaded Vettel in qualifying, took heart from the fact that the cars were tightly bunched on Saturday with the top eight all within four-tenths of a second.
"We will re-group and have a look at how we go tomorrow. We've made progress with the car from Melbourne though," Webber said.
"It's tight between the first four rows, there's some very good performances going on from quite a few teams -- it's good for the fans."