Joe-Pinions: Sports

8 Jun 2012 – What Has Happened to McLaren?

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 09/06/2012

Mark Webber won the 2012 Monaco Grand Prix, and Red Bull Racing became the first team this year to win multiple grands prix.

Six races into the twenty-race 2012 Formula 1 season, we have had six different winners from five different constructors.   Such a start is unprecedented in the history of this branch of the motorsports tree.

The big teams who have dominated the victories and champions lists for the past few seasons – Red Bull, McLaren, and Ferrari – have each taken at least one win, Mercedes-Benz (and Nico Rosberg) finally broke through, and even Williams (with Pastor Maldonado) has returned to the hallowed ground that only winners get to visit, territory that they used to tread on with imperious regularity.

But this blog post won’t be about Mark Webber.

It won’t be about Red Bull, either.

Neither will it be about this most unique beginning to a Grand Prix season.

Rather, this post will be about the McLaren-Mercedes team’s baffling season so far.

It all started out so auspiciously.

A front-row lockout at Melbourne seemed to promise so much.  At the onset, it certainly looked as if McLaren had addressed its biggest weakness relative to Red Bull, the lack of ultimate speed in qualifying.  To wit, Lewis Hamilton romped to the pole, with teammate Jenson Button just a couple of hundreths of a second away.  The fastest Red Bull, Australia’s very own Mark Webber, was almost .7secs adrift (and starting from fifth place).  Not only that, but it seemed as if the team had learned some valuable strategic and tactical lessons from Red Bull as well.  As Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel did last year with seemingly imperious ease at most of the races, they translated their superior qualifying position into an early DRS-proof gap at the front of the field.  After establishing such a strategic advantage, McLaren therefore had control the race’s tactics.  The lead car almost always dictates the pit stop sequences, and with nobody in front the leader also had the advantage of controlling his tire wear.  That was essentially the key to Jenson Button’s season-opening victory in Melbourne.  Even after the safety car periods, he would immediately just re-establish his DRS-proof gap over his immediate pursuers.

Meanwhile, Lewis Hamilton finished in third.  This was probably very disappointing for him (as I wrote in March), but looking at the big picture it at least gave him a solid start to his 2012 campaign.  It wasn’t as satisfying as a race victory would have been, for sure, but he might have taken some comfort in the fact that he finished on the podium and put 15 useful points into his account.

McLaren thus led the Constructors’ World Championship after one round of twenty with 40pts; Red Bull, who they probably consider their chief competition this season, left Melbourne with 30pts.  Ferrari, meanwhile, looked like a giant mess with a pig of a car and apparently only one driver capable of producing good results:  The F2012 was a very difficult car to race, and Fernando Alonso was streets faster than poor Felipe Massa, who sadly looks like he has never fully regained his form after his devastating accident in Hungary in 2009.

The team repeated its Australian qualifying feats in the following race in Malaysia.  Again, Hamilton took pole; again, Button was second fastest.  At the start, the McLarens narrowly avoided a fratricidal intra-team contretemps; the upshot was that Hamilton held his lead, and Button was in second.

Things didn’t stay that good for the team, however.  When the predictable onset of a Malaysian monsoon drenched the track, the ensuing race suspension served to scramble the race order as conditions became more difficult for the teams and their drivers.  When the race resumed some 51mins after the suspension was called, track conditions were still difficult.  Button ran afoul of a very slow Narain Karthikeyan and wrecked his front wing, as well as his chances for a good finish.  Hamilton, though, fell down the order to third when he simply didn’t have the pace to match either the surprising Sergio Perez in his Sauber nor the brilliant Fernando Alonso.  Still, a second consecutive P3 at the end meant that Hamilton was the only driver so far to have finished on the podium for each race run.  McLaren still held the lead of the Constructors’ championship, while Hamilton was second to Alonso in the Drivers’ title race.  Button was third after two races.

McLaren couldn’t make it three pole positions in three races in China, although Hamilton did secure his third consecutive front row starting position.  Nico Rosberg finally broke his duck and  took his first career pole position in the Grand Prix of China.  Indeed, Rosberg parlayed his first career pole into his first career Grand Prix victory, with both McLaren drivers finishing on the podium with him.  Button took P2, and Hamilton P3.  Button was actually in strong contention for the race victory, racing with strong pace and excellent tire management skills, but was hampered by a problematic pit stop late in the race whilst in a narrow lead.

Normally, McLaren’s pit work is topnotch; nobody saw Button’s bad pit stop in China as nothing more than a rude Shanghai Surprise, an aberration in every sense of the word.  The fact that the McLaren drivers now stood 1-2 in the championship race (Hamilton with 45pts now two points ahead of Button), with Button in particular looking superbly suited to adapting to the vagaries of the Pirelli racing tires, probably didn’t set off any real alarm bells within the team.

The team’s disastrous Bahrain Grand Prix, however, probably did.  Despite the fact that both McLarens were starting in the top four (Hamilton in 2nd, Button in 4th), they never displayed the necessary pace to beat the two-time defending World Champion Sebastian Vettel.  More disconcertingly, the McLarens also proved to be slower than the black and gold Lotuses, Nico Rosberg, and even Fernando Alonso in his Ferrari.  After their pace-setting opening to the season, it was a minor shock to the system to see the McLarens struggling against so many of their rivals.

But the bigger shock, at least to me, was to see the continuation of their poor form during the pit stops.  They arguably lost their opportunity to win in China due to Jenson Button’s tardy final stop, but with no less than THREE slow and disorganized tire stops (two for Hamilton and one for Button) in Bahrain it seemed that McLaren had a definite problem either with their equipment, their personnel (not too likely, in my opinion), or their pit stop methodology.  The bottom line remained unchanged, however:  As difficult as it is to win races and championships with impeccable work in the pits during the races, the task becomes near impossible when the pit crew suddenly becomes unreliable.

This becomes immeasurably MORE true when the competitive balance amongst the teams is so tight it’s impossible to predict who will win the next race.

But it wasn’t just the shoddy pit work that made Bahrain such a miserable race for the McLarens.  With just a couple of laps remaining in the race, Jenson Button’s car suffered first a broken exhaust, then, more terminally, a broken differential.  It ended Button’s fighting comeback that was one of the highlights of the final third of the race.  Given that Hamilton only managed an 8th place (and 4pts), this meant that McLaren ceded first position in the Constructors’ championship to Red Bull, and that Lewis lost the lead in the Drivers’ title chase to the winner of the Bahrain GP, Sebastian Vettel.

The Spanish Grand Prix only continued McLaren’s trend of misery.  Although Lewis Hamilton actually set the fastest time in Q3, thereby taking the pole position, he had to stop out in the middle of the circuit on his in-lap per the advice of his team.  The team was concerned that if Lewis continued on his way back to the pits and parc fermé, his McLaren would not have had enough fuel to provide the required 1liter post-qualifying sample for analysis and homologation.  The race stewards deemed this breach in the regulations severe enough to warrant excluding all of Hamilton’s times set in qualifying and therefore relegating him to the very back of the grid.  Given the fact that Button only managed to qualify in 10th, the operational botch (whether by design – perhaps McLaren deliberately put in such a low fuel load on Lewis’ final qualifying run to ensure he took pole in Barcelona – or through simple yet accidental negligence) on Hamilton’s car cost Hamilton not just the pole position, but also any realistic chance to compete for the victory.

Hamilton raced with great pace and controlled aggression, eventually finishing in 8th place, one position in front of his teammate.  Hamilton’s race was again marred by bad work by his pit crew:  On his first stop, Hamilton’s exit from his box was delayed when he was forced to stop because he ran over something.  Some said Hamilton’s right rear ran over an old tire; other reports indicated that Hamilton ran over a part of a pit mechanic’s foot.  Whatever the case, Hamilton’s McLaren jumped off the tarmac and bounced as it landed hard when it ran over whatever it ran over.

Meanwhile, Jenson Button, slow throughout qualifying, never looked to have the necessary speed to mix it up with the faster cars.  His 9th place was singularly disappointing, the 2pts earned a paltry reward for such a difficult weekend’s work.

And so to Monaco we go.  McLaren’s luck, in particular in Button’s half of the garage, continued its inexorable descent.  Although Lewis Hamilton did manage to set the fourth fastest time in qualifying (he started third after the fastest man in qualifying, Michael Schumacher, was docked five grid placings for his role in the collision with Bruno Senna in the preceding Grand Prix in Spain), Button never found his groove, never into making it into Q3.  Button started a sad 13th.  On a circuit where overtaking is nigh impossible, this was almost a proverbial death sentence on any realistic chances to win.

Predictably, Button hit trouble at the start, losing places and momentum when he had to avoid the crash that eliminated the Lotus of Romain Grosjean at Ste. Devote.  In the tight confines of Monte Carlo, Button never really had a realistic chance to fight through the field.  His race ended on lap 70 when he spun his McLaren at the exit of the Swimming Pool complex.  That he spun whilst trying to overtake Heikki Kovalainen’s Caterham must have been particularly galling to both Button and McLaren.

Hamilton, meanwhile, lost two places relative to his starting position and finished the race in fifth.  Never during the weekend did he demonstrate that he had race-winning pace.

F1

McLaren has many problems at the moment.  Chief among these is the fact that while its expected rivals – Red Bull and Ferrari, as well as Mercedes – all have clearly improved their cars as the season has gone on, other teams have also improved.  Sauber has been a pleasant surprise; Lotus, too, has been threatening to win a race or two before very long.  With so many threats from so many different fronts, McLaren will find it difficult to improve their position.

Another problem is the rash of sloppy work in the pits and operations side of the team.  Frankly, it’s shocking to see McLaren, of all teams, to have hit a run of just bad pit stops, costing their drivers valuable points and even race victories.  One bad pit stop is enough to terminally damage a team and/or a driver’s chances at a championship (just ask Nigel Mansell and Williams from the 1980s); the McLaren team MUST eliminate the tendency to make mistakes on their side of the pit wall, especially since their strongest rivals don’t seem to share the same tendency.

As a fan of the team, it’s absolutely disappointing to see McLaren lose its way increasingly as the season has gone on.  The strong performances in the first three or four races now seem to be nothing more than just a distant memory.

How will the team and its drivers respond?

More to the point, can they respond and somehow rediscover the McLaren magic they had earlier in the year?

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