The return of the Mack

So, that’s the first Formula 1 race of 2014 done and dusted.  In some ways you could say that, despite the new 1.6 litre turbocharged hybrid power units and regulations changes, nothing has changed.  We still had a German dominating the race, by breaking clear at the start, leading the way for the whole race and winning by a huge margin.  In reality, though, we all know that the F1 of 2014 is different from 2013 in a whole raft of ways.

Nico Rosberg on his way to a dominant victory in Australia

Nico Rosberg on his way to a
dominant victory in Australia

Firstly, of course, it wasn’t Sebastian Vettel – world drivers’ champion for the last four seasons in his Red Bull Renault – who dominated the race, but another young German in Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg.  Such was the manner of Rosberg’s victory, though, that it was very reminiscent of Vettel’s past dominance.  Rosberg won the race by a huge 24.5 seconds from Red Bull Racing’s new Australian driver Daniel Ricciardo (later excluded from the results after a fuel flow infraction), with McLaren’s Kevin Magnussen a further 2.2 seconds back.

While Red Bull Racing Team Principle Christian Horner’s prediction that Mercedes might win by a couple of laps proved to be very wide of the mark, it was certainly proved correct that Mercedes are enjoying a significant pace advantage over the rest of the field right now.  Unfortunately for them, and for polesitter Lewis Hamilton, that pace has not come hand in hand with total reliability.  Sadly for Hamilton, and for the race, he only managed to complete three laps because of a failed cylinder in his engine, which hampered him from the get go enabling Rosberg to cruise past him off the line.  Hamilton, though, handled the understandable disappointment well; you suspect that his turn will come, and before long.

Ricciardo drove an excellent race to finish second, and hold off Kevin MagnussenThere were also contrasting fortunes for the two Red Bull Racing cars in terms of race performance.  To be honest, the world constructors champions did amazingly well to be anywhere near the front after a disastrous pre-season, but they confounded expectations by looking competative in Melbourne.  While new boy Ricciardo was hugely impressive over the race weekend, both starting and finishing in second place before his subsequent exclusion from the results,  his team-mate, reigning world champion Sebastian Vettel, did not enjoy the same sort of performance levels.

Vettel was hampered by a software problem in qualifying, meaning that he could only manage to qualify in 13th place (he started 12th after a grid penalty for Valterri Bottas).  In the race, he never really got going, dropping back at the start and completing just one more lap than Hamilton before being forced to retire.  The frustration from the German was clear over team radio as he instructed his team to “Do something” while complaining of a lack of power and pace.  Things aren’t quite so easy when you’re not in the dominant car and you suspect that this is something that Vettel will have to come to terms with, particularly in the early stages of the season.

Eric Boullier has joined McLaren as Racing Director

Eric Boullier has joined
McLaren as Racing Director

While Mercedes cars, and in some ways the two Red Bulls, suffered contrasting fortunes the same cannot be said of a resurgent McLaren.  Martin Whitmarsh’s departure, the return of Ron Dennis and the recruitment of Eric Boullier as Racing Director has coincided with a huge turnaround for the Woking-based team.  McLaren struggled throughout 2013, finishing the season without scoring a single podium finish.  They ended that run in the first race of 2014 with rookie Kevin Magnussen’s brilliant drive to third place on his F1 debut.  Following Ricciardo’s exclusion this, of course, was upgrade to second.

Not only that, but Magnussen was followed home by team-mate Jenson Button who inherited third, meaning that McLaren leave Australia with a double-podium and the lead of the constructors championship.  While all is not quite as the team would hope – they’re still lacking in outright pace in comparison to Mercedes – this is a massive leap forward for McLaren.  They might not be the quickest, but they have proved that they’ve got consistency.  Not only that, but the tactical errors that have blighted the team over the past couple of seasons look to have been eradicated.  There was clear evidence of that as Jenson Button was moved forward through the pit stops from his 10th place starting position, leapfrogging cars with some good strategy, particularly when taking maximum advantage from the single safety car period – caused after Valterri Bottas brushed the wall in his Williams – by diving into the pits at the last possible moment.

Bottas, tyre smoking, squeezes past Raikkonen

Bottas, tyre smoking, squeezes past Raikkonen

While McLaren – the Mack of this article’s title – are clearly back amongst the front-runners, they’re certainly not the only ones.  Williams were hugely impressive in pre-season and they seem to have carried that forward into the season proper, along with a new title sponsorship deal with Martini.  Although they perhaps didn’t achieve the results that they might have hoped for in Australia, Bottas’s sixth place finish still resulted in eight world championship points for the Grove-based team.  That’s three more than they managed for the whole of the previous season.  Things might have been even better for the team had new recruit Felipe Massa not been taken out at the first corner by Caterham’s Kamui Kobayashi, and Bottas not brushed the wall at turn 10 on lap 10 when running in sixth position, triggering the safety car.

We’re only one race into the season, of course, but Williams and McLaren look to be back where they would say they belong.  Ferrari, clearly have work to do – the Scuderia where never really in contention at Albert park, finishing fifth (Alonso) and eighth (Raikkonen) places (both upgraded following Ricciardo’s disqualification) – but not as much as Lotus who, as expected, struggled badly, with both cars forced to retire.  Pastor Maldonado’s move from Williams to Lotus, is not looking like the wisest one right now.

One thing is clear, though, Mercedes are enjoying a significant pace advantage over their rivals.  If they can maintain that throughout the season, and minimise the sort of reliability issues suffered by Hamilton, there’ll be no stopping them in 2014.

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Midfield McLaren toil in Melbourne as Kimi charges to victory

With testing done and dusted, it was time to find out what the real pecking order was at the first race of the season in Melbourne.  The Australian weather made us wait, though, as the nitty-gritty elements of qualifying were postponed until Sunday.  When the second and third parts of qualifying were eventually run it was Red Bull Racing that came out on top with a front row lock out.  Their speed looked ominous for the other teams, but as it turned out the Milton Keynes based team could not reproduce it in the race as Lotus and Ferrari proved to have the strongest race pace.

Mercedes also showed that they have taken some huge steps forward with this year’s car, particularly in qualifying in the hands of Lewis Hamilton, and in wet conditions in the hands of his team-mate Nico Rosberg.  Things appear to have gone disastrously wrong for McLaren, though, who find themselves far from where they had hoped to be; solidly in the midfield rather than challenging at the sharp end of the field.  It certainly looks like the testing indications proved to be accurate for these five teams.

Kimi Raikkonen on his way to victory down under

Kimi Raikkonen on his way to victory down under

It was Lotus, at least in the hands of 2007 world drivers’ champion Kimi Raikkonen, who came out on top, though.  It was perhaps surprising that the Finn cruised to what was, in the end, a comfortable victory, given that he had only managed to qualify his Lotus in seventh place, behind the Red Bulls, Ferraris and Mercedes cars.  Raikkonen, though, drove faultlessly in the race.  He made ground early on and by lap two he had moved into fourth place after passing Hamilton’s Mercedes, which struggled early on.

Raikkonen’s speed early in the race put him in a great position, behind the leading trio of Red Bull’s triple world driver’s champion Sebastian Vettel and the Ferrari’s of Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso.  However, Raikkonen’s speed alone wasn’t enough to win him the race.  When that speed is combined with a car that’s easy on tyres, and some clever strategy, you have a winning formula.

That’s exactly the formula that Lotus seemed to have developed.  The team got their strategy absolutely right, making a two stop strategy work where their immediate competitors stopped three times.  The key factor that allowed the Enstone based team to succeed with a two stop strategy where others, notably Mercedes, failed, was tyre wear.  The Lotus E21 seems to have inherited its predecessor’s trait of not being too tough on its tyres.  While that’s an advantage in itself, it might be especially important in 2013 as this year’s Pirelli tyres deliberately degrade more quickly than their 2012 equivalents.  We’ll have to see if this is something that Lotus are able to repeat as the season progresses.

Lewis Hamilton declared himself "really happy" with his fifth pace in Australia

Lewis Hamilton declared himself “really happy”
with his fifth pace in Australia

As for the other teams, I think that Ferrari will be the most satisfied.  They managed to get both cars into the top four, with second place for Alonso and fourth for Massa.  They had qualified well, too, and while they’re certainly not the quickest car they have a much stronger base to build on than they had in 2012.  Red Bull Racing will be disappointed that they could not convert what appeared to be a significant qualifying advantage into similar dominance in the race.  Vettel streaked away from pole and quickly established a gap to the cars behind, but this was not something that he was able to maintain.  Mark Webber’s started contrasted with that of his team-mate as he fell back alarmingly and never properly recovered, eventually finishing sixth compared to the bottom step of the podium for Vettel.  As I mentioned, Mercedes looked strong in qualifying, but they weren’t able to replicate their speed in race conditions.  Hamilton can be fairly satisfied with fifth place on his debut for the Brackley based team, who would have been disappointed to see Rosberg retire with mechanical trouble on lap 27.

Aside from Sauber, who suffered a fuel system problem on Nico Hulkenberg’s car, meaning that the German couldn’t even start the race, the team that must be the most disappointed is McLaren.  The Woking based team had the fastest car at the end of last season, having won the last two races of 2012.  They looked like they would be well set to challenge at the front of the field in 2013 as we headed into the winter break.  However, things appear to have gone very wrong for the British team.  They found themselves struggling during testing, but put a brave face on things leading up to the Australian grand prix.  Sadly for them, though, they have found that testing has proved to be an accurate indicator of their place in the formula 1 pecking order.  So what exactly has gone wrong?

Button and Perez will be disappointed with the car the launched at the end of January

Button and Perez will be disappointed with the car
they launched at the end of January

All of the other teams have produced evolutionary 2013 cars; choosing to build on the base of their cars from last season.  McLaren have, though, rolled the dice and gone in another direction.  While their 2013 car, the MP4-28, looks physically quite similar to its forerunner the MP4-27, under the skin the cars are very different.  McLaren have gone for revolution rather than evolution on the basis that a new design concept would leave them more room for development throughout the season.  At least at this stage, that looks to be a very costly mistake.

There is certainly plenty of room for development of the MP4-28, but that’s because it is a slow car.  Team principal Martin Whitmarsh told Sky Sports on Friday that the car is “lacking grip” and has a “poor ride”, going on to say that “There’s a lot of head scratching at the moment”.  Jenson Button agreed, saying “We have quite a few weaknesses with the car. Ride is a lot worse than what we expected and Martin’s already pointed that out. We’ve been working with that today to try and improve the car around the ride, but we haven’t really found a direction yet. That’s something we’ll be working on and hopefully we can find a good direction because the ride is so important with a Formula One car. If the car’s moving around a lot then the downforce isn’t necessarily working in the correct manner, so we’ve got to get the ride sorted”.

In my view, McLaren’s decision to opt for a completely new car design concept is an illogical one.  Let’s not forget that 2014 will see new technical regulations which will mean complete car redesigns for all of the teams.  Why then would McLaren gamble with a new design concept that will only be of use to them for one year, especially given that their 2012 car was so strong?  Indeed, the new car is so poor, that there is already talk of the team reverting to the MP4-27.  That’s still premature, but it is worrying to see that the British team have got things so wrong at this stage.

Jenson Button on his way to a disappointing ninth place in Melbourne

Jenson Button on his way to a disappointing
ninth place at Albert Park

It also appears that they are still afflicted by the operational errors that blighted the team for so long in 2012.  This time mistakes in qualifying meant that Sergio Perez didn’t even get a chance to have a real go at making Q3, while the team’s decision to run three timed laps on the super soft tyres for Jenson Button meant that the Englishman’s tyres were already heavily grained before he even started the race.  He was forced to pit on lap four of the race, the earliest stop for any of the teams.

While there is ample cause for concern at McLaren, Lotus will be delighted with their start to the season.  Raikkonen was hugely consistent on his way to third place in the 2012 world driver’s championship, but he didn’t win a race until the 18th round of the season in Abu Dhabi.  He has hit his stride far earlier this term and that certainly bodes well for his chances of a championship challenge in 2013.  I suspect that the Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes drivers will all consider themselves in with a good chance, too, though.  It should be another exciting season.  Roll on Malaysia.

McLaren malaise

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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