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Why McLaren should never be underestimated

An incredibly frustrating season showcasing numerous mistakes that have seen both Championships’ slip through their grasp – but does this really signify the start of a downward turn for the Woking Squad?
Friday, November 9, 2012

November 9th, 2012 (F1plus / James Parker).- McLaren this season have provided Formula 1 fans an almost story like tale, one of sheer delights, utter disappoints, and unrivalled frustration, all rolled into one topsy turvy year where the team as a whole, will look back on what has been surely a missed opportunity. At the start of the season the Woking squad looked unbeatable, with both Hamilton and Button locking out the first row of the grid for the first two Grand Prix’s at Melbourne and

Malaysia, the MP4-27 looking like it ran on rails during qualifying with both drivers making the most of the early season pace.
However let’s fast forward nearly 8 months now and the reality is one of huge disappointment. That incredible early season form has been awash with terrible mistakes that have gone on to define McLarens season as a whole – one of huge potential yet huge underachievement.

Obviously from a fans perspective this is incredibly frustrating, to witness your favourite team unable to translate such magnificent pace into great results is truly despairing, with many unable to contain their dismay anymore after another disappointing weekend last time out in Abu Dhabi. Lewis Hamilton retired comfortably from the lead with teammate Button only managing 4th place, after showing blistering pace throughout all 3 practice sessions – a case of what might have been once again for the Woking outfit.

This early season pace, was thwarted due to pitstop blunders which saw the team put under the microscope by the media, claiming McLaren were a team past it’s sell by date, one who’s operations were not up to the standard being shown by the drivers, painting a picture of sheer embarrassment for the team.

Kobayashi took Button out of the race at Korea just at the second turn.

The blunders reached a head at the Spanish Grand Prix, when Lewis Hamilton easily qualified his McLaren on pole position for the race come Sunday, only to pull up on the slow-down lap as his McLaren was too short on fuel to make it back to the pits. This prompted an investigation by the FIA who found not enough fuel could be taken from the tank for a sample, and therefore the Briton was demoted to the very rear of the grid. This came immediately after a tragic weekend in Bahrain which saw two disastrous pit stops for Lewis during the race and Jenson retiring from the race with a broken exhaust.

But after a prompt investigation by the team, the operational department of the team was completely overhauled in true McLaren fashion, and the results all came to the fruition during the German Grand Prix when the team recorded a 2.31 pit stop for driver Jenson Button – a record in Formula 1 history. But while it may be easy to read into that, since the mid part of the season, you cannot argue with the improvements that are clearly evident on the pit wall since the start of the year.

However in recent weeks, attention has long been turned away from the pit stops, but to more pressing matters within McLaren, something which has been a truly frustrating time for drivers and fans alike, that being the sheer unreliability experienced with the MP4-27. Both Jenson and Lewis have suffered torrid reliability recently with Button having to retire from the Italian Grand Prix with suspected fuel issues, and Hamilton twice having to retire from leading the race in Singapore and Abu Dhabi, suffering from a gearbox failure and fuel pump problems respectively.

Now even Martin Whitmarsh has admitted this is not good enough in terms of overall challenging for the WDC, and whilst some 10 years ago having reliability issues did not have such a huge bearing on a title challenge, with the sport experiencing it’s most competitive phase in years, reliability has to become something of the past for a team if they are to remain realistic in challenging for the drivers and constructor’s crowns.

Of course the biggest blow McLaren have suffered this season, is the announcement that their talisman Lewis Hamilton will be leaving to join the Mercedes outfit headed by technical mastermind Ross Brawn for 2013, and whilst suggesting if this was the right decision or not by the Briton is a completely different story in itself, many have speculated this could perhaps be the start of a significant downward spiral in terms of competitiveness for the Woking squad. With poor reliability, obscure decisions on the pit wall and now losing one half of their British “Dream Team”, McLaren look set to dip even further behind RedBull, Ferrari and possibly Lotus..... Or do they?

McLaren and Formula 1 have history together that is only surpassed by one team – Ferrari, of course they have come a long way since the days of Bruce McLaren racing the cars he built himself throughout the 60’s and 70’s before his untimely death. But he was an incredible man, an inspiration that to this day the whole team must look to in times of need. He set the foundations for a team that had winning in its DNA, a team that whatever decade it experienced would strive to become the best of the Formula 1 paddock.

Hamilton coming back to pits after retiring from the Abu Dhabi GP while leading.

When you look back throughout those decades, there are of course fluctuations in terms of teams dominating the sport – Throughout the 60’s it was all Lotus, 70’s saw the rise of Ferrari and Lotus once again, the 80’s saw Williams enter the fray as front runners, continuing through to the 90’s and the famous Newey designed cars. Then of course the 2000’s saw Schumacher and Ferrari stamp out all competition to win 5 consecutive titles. But, and this is a big but, there remains one team that has gone on to win races and titles in every conceivable era just mentioned, with iconic drivers such as Hunt, Fittipaldi, Lauda, Prost, Senna, Hakkinen, Raikkonen and more recently Lewis Hamilton, that being none other than McLaren.

This is where the team’s reputation starts to make sense, it is widely accepted up and down the paddock that, whatever car McLaren start the season with, whether it be 1 second per lap faster than its competition, or simply stuck in the midfield, by the end of the year, they will be up at the very sharp end of the grid.

The best proof of this has to be that highly controversial 2009 season, marred by the double deck diffuser scandal, which come the latter part of the year, every front running team alongside Brawn had incorporated onto their cars. Whilst in Melbourne the team were upwards of 1.5 seconds per lap off the pace, come the season’s end, Hamilton and McLaren were arguably the fastest combination on the grid.

This is where the Woking squad are at their best, development. If you walk into the McLaren Technology Centre, it doesn’t take long to realise exactly why that is. It is a fabulous building, almost perfect in every detail, and inside where the magic happens, this trend continues perfection simply isn’t enough for the team, who work in this magnificent white surround, constructing their iconic Formula 1 cars.

The military precision in which the entire department work towards is relentless, constantly striving to become better, faster, more consistent, and that is why the team are considered the best developers on the entire grid, able to transform even the worst cars into a front running, winning machine come season’s end.

For 2013, I have seen numerous people instantly write off the team as challengers for the crown, they have lost their talisman Lewis Hamilton, and with it the competitiveness of the team? But is that strictly true? I remember at the backend of 2001, when Mika Hakkinen announced his retirement from the sport in rather emotional fashion, that when a certain Kimi Raikkonen was announced as his successor, many signalled it as the end of McLaren, replacing a 2 time WDC with a driver that only had 1 full season in Formula 1 and some 20 odd races behind him, was considered a massive risk for the team. But 11 years down the line and the reality is one of a very different nature, Kimi establishing himself as one of the true greats of his generation, himself should have become a 2 time WDC with the team.

Once again, that is exactly the position the team find themselves in when the announcement came that they were replacing Hamilton with young talent Sergio Perez for 2013 – a driver who many have discounted as a real talent. But a team of McLaren’s stature do not make rash decisions, and whilst it may have looked like a panic signing amidst the Hamilton saga, the truth is that it was just a smokescreen.

Sergio Pérez will drive for McLaren in 2013.

So what can we learn from all of this?The team and more importantly Martin Whitmarsh have seen something in Perez, and whilst perhaps rough round the edges at this present moment in time, there is no reason to suggest the Mexican is not an unpolished diamond to the core. What Perez offers them is stability for next season, a platform to build on throughout the year. Both Perez and Button possess extremely similar driving styles giving the team a huge development advantage, and with the Mexican only 22, he offers McLaren a distinctive future and competitiveness longevity, when the veteran Button finally decides to hang up his helmet.

Well I think what we need to remember is whatever difficult time McLaren go through, they always come out the other end stronger, faster and more determined, it is why in every conceivable decade since the team’s inception they have remained competitive at the head of the field. Whilst it is a massive blow losing Lewis for 2013, it is not the end of the world for McLaren; in fact it can forge the way for a new beginning, a new future. No driver is bigger than the team, and many fans have overlooked that, life after Lewis will be bright for McLaren, they will be successful and they will continue to challenge for WDC’s, and that is why they are in the position they find themselves in today, as the second most successful team in history.

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