Saturday 23 February 2013

F1 2013 Season Preview: McLaren - A new page

There of course is a lot which is very good about McLaren. It is one of the best resourced outfits in F1. It boasts a vast army of fans. In terms of corporate branding and sponsor gathering it could well be the best of the bunch. It is consistently competitive; take any time period stretching back from now and you'll struggle to find a team that has been in the fight for wins as consistently as the Woking squad has. Its heritage of success is breathtaking. But there is a problem: somehow in recent times the team has shown an astonishing inability to win world championships.

Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
Think I'm exaggerating? Well here are a couple of facts to chew on: McLaren has won only one title - for drivers or constructors - since the turn of the millennium, with Lewis Hamilton's drivers' title in 2008 its only success. And the problem stretches back even further than that, all the way to the end of the Senna/Honda run of titles in 1991. In the 21 seasons since McLaren has won only four of the 42 available championships. Just stop and think about that for a moment.

And last season for McLaren the old story continued; indeed if anything the team seemed to find whole new ways of daintily dancing around the sport's ultimate prizes. It started the season with clearly the fastest car (perhaps unusually), some even talked after qualifying in round two of it enjoying a year of dominance as Red Bull had the year before. It ended the year with the fastest car too, and was also at the sharp end for much of the intervening period. Yet, somehow, in the final shakeout it didn't really come close to scaling either championship summit, its drivers placing a distant fourth and fifth in the drivers' table and the team ending up third in the constructors'.

So what happened? As with most explanations there was a number of factors within it, including that a seemingly innocuous rule tweak after the China race regarding the car's underbody appeared to put it on the back foot, and you could argue that not until Germany in late summer did the team really re-establish its competitive edge. Jenson Button endured a woeful performance trough at the same time, which didn't help. But the overarching reasons for McLaren coming up short were operational errors (particularly botched pit stops) in the first half of the year, and unreliability in the second half. Do a counterfactual of where McLaren might have been without these dropped points and you don't have to proceed too far before suddenly the titles are diverted into the team's hands.

In fairness to McLaren, the operational errors were largely licked by the season's end, and having taken its medicine on pit stops early in the year by the second half was consistently the best in the business here (though, as Jenson Button mused, you wonder why the changes and subsequent teething troubles weren't done during the winter rather than in the early rounds). The reliability one is harder to fathom though, with senior figures suggesting that it was baffling those in the team as much as anyone. The problems were largely unrelated to each other and Technical Director Paddy Lowe insisted that the MP4-27's general running reliability was good compared to its rivals, it's just that the breakdowns tended to happen when it most mattered. However, given that all of this is not a new thing (see the opening paragraphs) you wonder if something a bit more fundamental explains the sporadic dropping of clangers. Speak to McLaren fans and many will complain that with the team always something seems to go wrong.

And in some ways things don't get easier for McLaren in 2013. It starts to pay for its Mercedes engines, and moreover it has lost the driving talent of Lewis Hamilton. For all that Lewis's virtues and vices can be debated at length, his supreme pace in qualifying and a race cannot be denied, nor can his ability to deliver on days, which there will always be, when the car is not at its best. Lewis has been replaced by Sergio Perez, and with no disrespect to either McLaren driver its driving line up now looks rather the weaker, particularly for a qualifying lap and on the days when the car's not quite up to it.

But nevertheless only a fool would write the team off for 2013. McLaren's formidable engineering resource remains in place, and even though it finished 2012 ahead of the pack it has appeared to leave nothing to chance this year. The MP4-28 looks a more radical departure from the 2012 design than is the case for most of its rivals, and many onlookers have been impressed by the new design, with its higher nose, pull-rod front suspension, pushed back sidepods, sculpted rear bodywork and exhaust solution all thought to represent a strong forward stride. And Jenson's 1:18.861 lap on hard tyres and a relatively 'green' track on the opening day of testing in Jerez turned many pit lane occupants' heads. Since then though things have been a bit lower key for McLaren, and at Barcelona Jenson stated that the car was inconsistent, and the team could do with more testing time than is available to understand it. All at Woking will hope that this merely represents time required to get it head around its new design, and therefore to unlock its potential. But whatever the case it may mean a slow season start for McLaren, before coming on stronger later.

The Lewis Hamilton circus may have left town at McLaren, but what remains will be worth watching.

Jenson Button - Car #5
Credit: Ryan Bayona / CC
Never forget - in F1 as in everything else - that nobody knows anything. And if you want demonstration of this truism then you need look no further than to the recent experiences of Jenson Button. When he chose to join McLaren to partner Lewis Hamilton for 2010 most of us thought he'd committed career suicide. And yet, three years on, Lewis has left town and Jenson is de facto team leader, having by no means disgraced himself in their time as stable mates (indeed, Jenson actually scored the more points of the two). And for much of the period it appeared that Jenson, rather than Lewis, was the one who had his feet firmly under the Woking table.

And things are looking particularly good for Jenson as we face the 2013 campaign. It is often said that to win championships a lot of things have to go in your favour, and right now quite a few things seem to be conspiring to assist Jenson. He gives the impression of being in a contented place both in and away from F1, he is very much the team's go-to guy, has a young team mate, new to the team and possibly feeling his way, and the MP4-28 could well be an excellent one. You wonder if he'll ever get a better opportunity to double his total of titles.

We all know what we can expect from Jenson in 2013: classy, polished and rapid drives spliced with crisp overtakes, all done with a feather-like touch on his tyres and machinery. And yet as well as this last year we also witnessed Jenson's flip side, that you suspect that he needs everything to be close to perfect alignment in order to give his best. His extended performance (and psychological) trough experienced in 2012 would be unthinkable from a Hamilton, Alonso or Vettel, and Jenson absolutely cannot afford a similar experience this year if his titles hopes are not to swiftly establish long shot status. And more broadly, while we know that he is capable of extreme pace and aggression, seen at Spa last year, or just about any wet race you could mention, and indeed Ross Brawn commented once that Jenson's pole lap in Monaco 2009 was the most he'd ever seen extracted from a car (some praise), you wonder where that aggression goes sometimes. Qualifying speed may also be a problem, as things stand he still only has one pole position to his name in his time at McLaren.

But if everything in Jenson's universe does indeed align often enough then he looks an extremely tempting outside bet for the drivers' title this year.

Sergio Perez - Car #6
Credit: Morio / CC
In F1, establishing a strong reputation is invariably a little like chasing butterflies: the object is maddeningly elusive, and often lost at the very moment you think you've got it captured. And Sergio Perez perhaps knows this better than anyone. In the past 12 months his reputation has fluctuated more than most. After his run in Malaysia last year, so narrowly missing out on victory, many thought a star had been born. Even when McLaren selected him as Lewis Hamilton's replacement in early Autumn, basking as he was in the warm afterglow of his strong Monza showing, many thought the team had struck gold. Yet, as things stand right now many are not nearly as sure.

And if some of Martin Whitmarsh's public noises from late last year are anything to go by, this includes the McLaren team itself. Of course, we all remember Perez's high tide water marks in the 2012 season, in his stellar podium runs in Malaysia, Canada and Italy. In each he showed astounding confidence and verve, as well as no respect for the sport's most illustrious names, and found pace to sail through the field with tyre life like he was operating with different laws of physics to everyone else. But Sergio's problem is that the season lasted 20 races, and aside from the three races mentioned there wasn't a great deal to write home about. He was unlucky on occasion admittedly, but in many of these races you'd plain hardly know that he was there.

And worse, in the latter part of the year and with a signed McLaren contract in his pocket he threw errors into the mix too. He binned it in Suzuka (trying to pass Hamilton no less) then made what looked avoidable contact with other cars in each of the next four races. Rumour has the top brass at Sauber believing that Perez was inconsistent and that the C31 was a better car than he tended to make it look (and the team's pronouncements after signing Nico Hulkenberg positively dripped with the idea). His qualifying record was nothing special either, and only in late 2012 did he edge ahead of his team mate Kamui Kobayashi on their head-to-head count. And what about those podium runs themselves: how much of those were down to Perez's driving and how much down to the peculiar magic touch of the Sauber C31 on the Pirelli tyres if voodoo-like factors aligned? Towards the end of 2012 many begun to speculate that McLaren might just have acted somewhat in haste in signing him up (perhaps caught off guard by Lewis's surprise departure?), and that Hulkenberg would have been a much safer bet of those available.

Of course, McLaren is a fantastic opportunity for Perez and he is young and has time to improve. Further, at McLaren he'll get plenty of opportunity and assistance to get things right. It wouldn't be the first time a driver has surprised us (in a good way) when they get their hands on competitive machinery and only a churl would not wish him the best. But right now there seem to be more questions than answers. And as Heikki Kovalainen found out, even at McLaren time to get to the required level is not ever-lasting. This year, in the glare of a front-running car, we'll start to get resolution to some of the questions about Sergio Perez, good or bad.

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