Saturday 19 March 2011

F1 2011 Season Preview: McLaren - Playing catch up?

They have the feeling it's happening to them again.

As in 2009, as well as in 2006 and 2004, McLaren appear to have produced a car not on the front-runners' pace. How far they are behind, and how quickly they get back on it (and the extent that they can limit in the points damage in the meantime) will be the key factors in McLaren's chances of the titles in 2011.

It all seems a far cry from the optimism at the launch of the MP4-26 a few weeks ago. That they were launching after most of their rivals, just like in 1988, led many to believe that they had tricks up their sleeve. The radical design, including U-shaped sidepods, as well as the bullish noises coming from the team, and the sheer confidence of assembling their car in front of watching world at their launch, meant there was a common assumption that McLaren were a team to watch this year.

This lasted until the new machine first turned a wheel in testing. It rapidly became clear that it was lacking both in grip and reliability. Some analyses had it completing more testing miles only than the HRT. Martin Brundle, having watched it out on track, went so far as to describe the car as a 'mess', before going on to say 'It didn't slow down. It didn't turn in. It couldn't get the power down. Lewis [Hamilton] looked absolutely at sea in the thing. Clearly they have a fundamental issue.' Such concerns were to an extent confirmed when the two drivers started to make pessimistic noises, admitting they were not yet on the pace of the Red Bulls and Ferraris.

Nevertheless, the team can take comfort from that the 2009 year showed that they can turn a failing car into a race winner in the course of a season, and for all the MP4-26's faults, it doesn't appear to be as far off the pace as the 2009 machine was initially. But even if they achieve a similar turnaround again, the Red Bulls and Ferraris may be out of reach points-wise by the time they're back on it. They'll want to be at least near the front-runners' pace by the start of the European season, at the latest.

They do however have the advantage, for now, of a harmony between their drivers that Red Bull and Ferrari can only dream about. Hamilton and Button have been much more Clark and Hill than Senna and Prost. However, Lewis's stony face after the Turkey race last year showed at least the potential for this to change.

McLaren also haven't timed the production of a struggling car well, given much of the midfield, including Mercedes according to the latest test, appear to have made clear steps forward, meaning there is a multiplied risk of cars ending up between the McLarens and the two pace-setting teams. Plus, if the car is poor on turn in, it will presumably eat its tyres relatively quickly, exactly what it doesn't need with the new Pirellis.

There is though one crumb of comfort from history for them. In 1991 Ayrton Senna returned from a beach in Brazil shortly before the start of that season, and after sampling his new McLaren declared publicly that it wasn't good enough to challenge for honours that season, being short of both power and aerodynamic progress in his view. He then went on to win the first four races of the year and win the championship at a relative canter. I wouldn't bet a huge amount of money on history repeating itself, though. 

Lewis Hamilton - Car #3
It seems astonishing to think that this will only be Lewis's fifth season as an F1 driver, given he seems to be part of the furniture when it comes to contending for titles, having done so in his every year in the sport aside from 2009. His mesmerising plug-in-and-go pace and natural talent, as well as his spellbinding flair and bravery, no one rivals him in the overtake (he'll be hoping that the Drag Reduction System doesn't effectively take this trump card away from him), mean that he is among the very top drivers in the sport right now.

His presence ensures that McLaren can be confident, even when the car is struggling, that they are seeing the most pace that is humanly possible to be extracted from it, vital for development, and that Lewis will continue to ring the car's neck and make the best of things even when short of grip and evil in handling. These are attributes he'll likely need this season, what with McLaren's likely early-season struggles as well as the degrading qualities of the Pirellis. Lewis showed in 2009 in such circumstances he'll continue to push out on track and get his shoulder behind a development programme.

Lewis showed a new maturity and avoidance of error for much of last season (depsite going though a run of hitting things from the Monza to the Suzuka rounds), and challenged for the drivers' title for longer than probably the car deserved. And all this was achieved when all sorts of potential distractions were going on off the track, including the dismissal of his father as his manager. He admits he's in a better place mentally this year - a warning for his rivals, as well as for his team mate. 

Jenson Button - Car #4
It is odd that after 2010, where he finished in fifth place in the drivers' table, Jenson Button's reputation should be enhanced in comparison to the end of his championship year in 2009. Yet, Jenson in many eyes performed better than expected after stepping into the 'lions' den' of Lewis's McLaren team last year.

He was generally outpaced by Lewis, but not by as far as some anticipated, and his calm and measured approach to the job, on and off the track, seemed to rub off well on his team mate. Additionally, his easy charm ensured that he got his feet under the McLaren table rapidly. On race day he was often the equal of his team mate, and if he can sort his qualifying (seems astonishing to think that Monaco '09 was his last pole) then he'll give Lewis even more to think about.

Jenson's thoughtful and methodical approach should also prove useful in what is almost certain to be an intense development programme for the MP4-26.

Many assume that Jenson's delicate touch on his tyres, seen repeatedly in 2010, will put him in good stead with the Pirellis this year. Unfortunately for Jenson such an assessment misses the point. Heat management of tyres, Jenson's strength, isn't the issue, instead the main influence the driver will have on the wear rate is showing restraint on pace, especially early in a stint. There's also the problem that the tyres' wear rate may mean a driver has to adapt and make the best of whatever the car is doing underneath him, a relative weakness for Jenson who tends to require a set-up to be just so, certainly when compared to his team mate. The tyres may also result in oversteery/tail happy handling towards the end of a stint, which Jenson usually abhors.

It is for these reasons that Jackie Stewart recently commented that Jenson for all his talents 'lacks that last bit of aggression, and he needs to sort out his inconsistency...there are always going to be lots of days when the car isn't just right for you'.


  1. Lots of posts to review, Graham! You've been busy writing these past days!

    I still quite don't get why McLaren's performance dropped last year, having from the start the F-duct, which meant that, basically, every other team had to put lots of resources to copy it. Ferrari had to copy both F-duct and exhausts-blow diffuser. Macca only the latter, and still, they apparently couldn't match the Italian's development pace. As you said, after what they showed in 2009 at that respect, seems weird.

    Honestly, it's difficult not to be a little bit biased after the 2007 season, being Spanish as I am. But I can't help feeling a great sympathy for McLaren, since is, along with Williams, the team that I liked most when watching the sport as a kid.

    I sincerely wish them success, for all the really innovative ideas they put (or tried to) in the MP4-26. By the way, all this "octopus" exhausts has been my main source of fun during the winter testing season.

    They looked good during FP1 and FP2 in Melbourne yesterday, but I still think they're behind Ferrari and, maybe, Mercedes. Let's not forget Albert Park is not a typical circuit, and results could be a little strange sometimes.

    Great reading, cheers.

  2. Thanks again Khan! Yes, McLaren are a strange team to judge. You could argue that last year's car was flattered a bit by its F-cut, and if you look back over the last 10 years it's been quite rare they've had clearly the best car aerodynamically - astonishing for a team with their resources.

    And this year they again started on the back foot. They've clearly clawed some performance back, though the next few races will give us a clearer picture of where they are in the scheme of things.

  3. Just to say that I'm really glad to have completely missed my predictions about McL's performance for MelbourneGP in my prev comment! Now let's see how they do in Malaysia.

    Cheers Graham.

  4. Yes, there's a lot of people (me included) with egg on their faces with their McLaren predictions! Even by their standards it was an amazing comeback in Melbourne.

    Still, the Melbourne track's not the most reliable guide of competitiveness, so we'll see where McLaren, and their rivals, are over the next few races.