What’s happened to McLaren? Unlike in 2010 and 2011, McLaren started 2012 as the team to beat from the start. The MP4-27 looked great and was fast. McLaren looked to be in a great position to potentially dominate the season, especially given that it’s been their development pace that’s been particularly impressive in recent times. The team hasn’t always started with the best car, but they’ve been able to improve more rapidly than their competitors, meaning that in 2012, with the fastest car from the get go, things looked well set for McLaren. Things haven’t worked out as planned for the Woking based team, though. Just one win – for Jenson Button in the season opening Australian grand prix – and a car that seems to be going in the wrong direction, would be bad enough, but it’s the mistakes that have dogged the team this term that have proved to be perhaps the most worrying for McLaren fans.
Let’s start by saying that everyone makes mistakes. Ultimately, despite the huge investment and ground breaking technology in Formula 1 machinery, human beings still, thankfully, play a critical role in the sport. Where there’s a human element there’s always the potential for mistakes to happen, but in Formula One it’s the job of team management to put in place processes and procedures to make sure that the possibility of human error is minimised as far as possible. McLaren have a reputation for being excellent at this and, particularly under Ron Dennis, the team developed into one of, if not the, most formidable, professionally run, teams in the sport. It’s this professionalism and attention to detail that made McLaren great. While McLaren might not always have the fastest car, they always made sure that they were among the best drilled teams on the grid. It’s what their fans, and indeed their competitors and the media, have come to expect from them. The fact that the team have built up such a formidable reputation perhaps makes the mistakes of 2012 even harder to bear for their fans, and makes the team a virtually irresistible target for criticism from the media. So, perhaps McLaren’s own gold plated reputation actually counts against them when the going gets tough. While that may, or may not, be true, the fact remains that the mistakes that the team have made over the first six races of the 2012 season have certainly cost them, and their drivers, points and, arguably the lead of both the drivers’ and the constructors’ world championships.
While 2012 has certainly been error strewn for McLaren, things could have been a whole lot worse. It turns out that Jenson Button might have been quite fortunate to win the opening race of the season in Melbourne. Following the race, team principle Martin Whitmarsh revealed that Button was forced to aggressively conserve fuel from lap eight onwards after the team had made in error in calculating the amount of fuel necessary to finish the race. It’s unclear whether the fuel saved during the mid race four lap safety car period (caused after Vitaly Petrov’s Caterham ground to a halt on the start/finish straight) spared McLaren’s blushes in this instance, or whether the team would have had sufficient fuel to finish in any case. Where lady luck was with McLaren, or at least with Jenson Button, in Australia, she’s been absent since.
On the face of things, McLaren had a decent result in China, finishing second and third with Jenson Button leading home Lewis Hamilton, behind the Mercedes of Nico Rosberg, who took his maiden grand prix victory. That’s not too bad, given Hamilton’s five place grid penalty for a gearbox change (he qualified second and started seventh), but things could have been so much better for his team mate. A slow pit stop on lap 39, when the 2009 world champion was leading by seven seconds, caused by a problem at the left rear, dropped Button out into heavy traffic, delaying him hugely and robbing him of the opportunity to challenge Rosberg for victory. Whether Button would have been able to catch and pass Rosberg without the slow pit stop is a matter for debate, but what is certain is that he would have stood a better chance of doing so without it. Unfortunately for McLaren, the slowish pit stop for Button in China was a sign of things to come.
Let’s move on to Bahrain, which proved to be an absolute nightmare of a race from Lewis Hamilton’s perspective. Hamilton made his first stop for fresh rubber on lap eight of the race, together with Red Bull’s Mark Webber and the Ferrari of Fernando Alonso. While the Australian and the Spaniard had flawless stops, the Englishman was stationary for over 10 seconds due to a problem with the left rear, repeating the issue that Button suffered in China. Hamilton’s frustration was obvious; replays showed him shaking his head as he waited to be released. If one slow pit stop was not enough, worse was to come for the 2008 World Champion. He pitted for the second time on lap 23 and had an identical problem, again with the left rear, leaving him stationary even longer than in his first stop – over 12 seconds. Hamilton eventually finished the race in eighth position, but without these pit stop errors would certainly have been in contention for at least fourth position, possibly more. Hamilton’s team mate Jenson Button faired even worse in Bahrain and was forced to retire with engine trouble after earlier suffering a puncture.
Things didn’t get any better for McLaren at the next race in Barcelona, Spain. Hamilton took a stunning pole position, by over half a second from Pastor Maldonado’s Williams, before being ordered by his engineer to stop on track. It soon turned out that the order to stop the car had been given because the team had under fuelled Hamilton’s car. The error lead to Hamilton being excluded from qualifying, meaning that instead of starting from the front of the grid, he started from the very back. This sort of error is hard to excuse, but it was compounded by the severity of the penalty and the fact that the team had known that Hamilton had been under fuelled before he started his final flying lap. Had they told him to abort, he would have still qualified in sixth position and been in with a chance of at least fighting for a podium. As it was, Hamilton started last and drove a brilliantly controlled race to take a creditable eighth, ahead of his team mate who started and finished 10th, after struggling with the car throughout Saturday and Sunday.
Moving finally to Monaco, Button again struggled with an increasingly difficult McLaren. He started just 12th and made no headway in the race itself before eventually retiring eight laps from the end, following a puncture. Hamilton faired better, qualifying third and finishing fifth, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Monaco is a notoriously hard track to overtake on, so the start of the race is probably the best opportunity for drivers to move forward. Hamilton would have known this all too well, so would have been aiming to make up places off the line and put himself in a position to challenge for victory. Things didn’t turn out that way, though. The team told him to make a late change to his clutch settings and, far from helping, the change meant that the McLaren was sluggish at the start, with Hamilton doing well to retain third position in the run to the first corner. The Monaco resident was quickly on the radio to his team to ask what had happened and he said after the race that his start was “one of the worst in a long time”. If the poor start cost Hamilton the opportunity to challenge for the race lead at the start, another sluggish pit stop and a lack of communication from the team cost him the opportunity to take a podium come the end of the race. Hamilton was jumped by first Fernando Alonso, who’s pit stop was a full second quicker than Hamilton’s, and then by Red Bull’s double world champion Sebastian Vettel. Vettel, drove a long first stint in a successful attempt to move forward from his ninth place grid slot, and built up a sufficient gap to allow him to jump ahead of Hamilton after pitting. On the face of it, you could say that’s just a case of good strategy from Red Bull and clever tyre conservation from Vettel, but there’s more to it than that. It turns out that Hamilton was unaware that he was under threat from Vettel. His team had failed to warn him of the danger posed by the German and Hamilton, being in the dark about the threat, didn’t push to narrow the gap and ensure that he wasn’t leapfrogged by the Red Bull driver. Hamilton declared after the race that “The team have definitely got some work to do because race by race we get farther and farther behind. It was more gutting losing the position to Vettel because it was so close”.
McLaren have enough problems without making these fundamental errors. As Hamilton indicated, the car is falling behind some of its rivals in terms of pace. Jenson Button, who has struggled more than his team mate in recent races, taking just two points from the last three, was more explicit, stating “The first three races were good and then suddenly in the last three…I don’t know where it is. The pace and the feeling that I’m getting from the car I’ve not had before. It’s tough but it’s nothing we can’t sort out – it’s just a question of whether we do it in time”. And that’s the big question for McLaren: can they overcome their recent performance issues and eliminate the errors quickly? If any team can do it it’s McLaren. The MP4-27 has underlying pace that’s there to be unlocked and the team’s reputation for professionalism will stand them in good stead when they analyse their recent mistakes and address them. They’ve already been working on pit procedures and systems and I expect that changes in this area will continue to be made until they get it right.
Don’t write off McLaren’s chances. They’ve had a bad run of late, but we’re not even a third of the way through the season. With six winners from the opening six rounds of the 2012 season, there’s no runaway leader of either the drivers’ or constructors’ championships. I believe that McLaren can and will overcome their issues soon, and when they do they should be well set for the rest of the season. McLaren fans will certainly be hoping that the team have used up all their bad luck and eradicated the mistakes by this time next week, when the F1 circus moves to Canada for round seven.
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