Tuesday, 16 October 2012

McLaren have done it again

They've been at the top end of Formula One for so many years in the sport's history, but since 1998, McLaren just can't seem to banish their Championship demons.

But for a team who pride themselves so much on a winning mentality, 2012 has certainly been a season that has gradually been falling apart for the Woking force - and looks set to join the ghosts of the last 14 years in the metaphorical graveyard of Championship challenges that have looked promising only for it to come crashing back down around them.

Martin Whitmarsh has yet to win a Championship as Team Principal
 A combination of bad luck, mechanical failures (look no further than the last race in Korea for the first two points) and unprofessional poor judgement has completely negated the rewards that McLaren should be reaping right now, when it started the season in ominous form with a 1-2 on the first Saturday in Melbourne and now faces another trophyless season, a scrap with Ferrari for 2nd in the Constructors Standings when a battle for the prize was within their sights and the departure of one of the fastest drivers on the grid in Lewis Hamilton, who is beginning to enter his prime and has not put a foot wrong (on the track) all season long.

And while Jenson Button has certainly picked up his form during the course of the early summer and beyond - highlighted by a sublime pole and win at Belgium - questions must be asked of his consistency of being able to challenge for pole. For while his race pace during Korea practice looked particularly eye-opening, Button was unable to make an impression in qualifying as he was knocked out in Q2. Whether that was down to a team miscommunication or the driver not being at one with the car, it is something McLaren need to think about for the future. Especially when you contrast Button's performances against Hamilton in 2012 - the Mercedes-bound man is the only driver to have made every Q3 session this season, taking five pole positions along the way. The best chance to win is from the front - something which Sebastian Vettel proves time and time again - and that can only make life more difficult for McLaren for 2013 onwards, who will have a relatively inexperienced driver in Sergio Perez, partnering a World Champion who has only taken one pole position for his current team throughout his three season story with them.

It is not the first time McLaren has had to potential to be on the top step by season's end. 2005 was seen as a great opportunity to bag their first title since the Hakkinen era of 98/99 but a series of mechanical gremlins condemned McLaren and their latest Finnish talent of Kimi Raikkonen to finish second best once again and opened the door for Fernando Alonso and Renault to become the second World Champions of the new millenium after several years of Schumacher/Ferrari dominance. Raikkonen's famous suspension failure with one lap to go at the Nurburgring perfectly summed up McLaren's fortunes - so close, but yet so far.

The MP4-20 had great speed but unreliability hindered it
And in 2007 an awesome but explosive pairing of Alonso and Hamilton got the job done, only for the team to become embroiled in 'Spygate' and the FIA to disqualify the team from the Constructors Championship. The humiliation was complete when Kimi Raikkonen pipped both of the McLaren drivers to the Championship from the brink.

Since then McLaren have built some strong cars, and have taken their fair share of the victories from 2008 to the present day, yet only have one Drivers Championship (which some would argue was very fortuitous under the circumstances of that afternoon at Interlagos) and the team are still waiting for their first Constructors title in 14 years.

Spygate was McLaren's darkest hour

2012 looked to be painting a different picture at the season opener in Melbourne. A rejuvenated Hamilton led a front row lockout but immediately there were signs that fate was looking to rain on McLaren's parade. Unlucky timing with a safety car deployment meant that Vettel was able to continue at racing speed for the majority of the circuit and pit, while Hamilton had to drive at a preset speed determined by the area he was driving in, which allowed the Red Bull to split the McLaren 1-2. But with 19 races to go, a crushing victory by Jenson Button didn't stop the team from feeling optimistic that this year could well have been there year.

Misfortune denied McLaren the best possible start to 2012
And then pit stop problems began to take centre-stage.

A dodgy pit stop for Hamilton allowed Alonso to jump ahead in the pit lane in Malaysia on his way to an incredible victory in Malaysia as McLaren squandered a front row lockout and another potential 1-2, Button was denied a chance to fight Rosberg for the win at China with a botched stop and Hamilton was once again on the receiving end of two consecutive slow stops at Bahrain, ensuring that a hard-fought 2nd place start was converted into a lowly and frustrating 8th place.

There was only a slight hiccup in the pit stops at Spain as McLaren made a bid to turn their pit stop woes behind them, only for an even greater error to overshadow their pit lane disasters. Lewis Hamilton had taken pole by a mighty 0.5 second gap and it looked incredibly difficult to overcome the McLaren in race trim. But when he was forced to stop on the track on his inlap due to a lack of fuel to carry him back home and give back to the stewards, Hamilton was disqualified and a strong chance of victory was dashed. Only five races in, and the team had made a series of blunders and cost themselves valuable Championship points in what was proving to be a very tight battle that they should have had a firm grip of.

Meanwhile on the other side of the garage, Button was playing to his reputation of being very sensitive with the balance of the car - he was occasionally brilliant, as shown Down Under, but occasionally very sloppy. Car balance struggles placed him in the intense midfield battles in Spain, Monaco (where he spent the entire race studying the back of Heikki Kovalainen's Caterham before he was in the wall laps before the chequered flag) and Canada. And just as it appeared that he had got his act together in Valencia, the performance of the car had fallen away from the rest of the field. Of all the races that McLaren chose to not turn up, it had to be in front of their adoring fans at Silverstone. It was almost as if the story had been scripted from the start.

Button's early season woes were in full view at Monaco

Improved pace from the MP4-27 more often than not benefited only one of the drivers over the next couple of races. The Silverstone response at Hockenheim looked impressive, but a well-earned podium finish for Button contrasted with an unfortunate puncture for Hamilton. The next four races saw four McLaren pole positions, demonstrating that the car looked to be the one to take the fight to Fernando Alonso at the top of the standings, but failure to take maximum points from both drivers meant that it didn't make as much of an impression over the summer as the team would have liked - Hamilton clung onto the win at Hungary while Button dropped from 4th to 6th, while Hamilton crashed at Spa and Button suffered a mechanical failure at Monza as their counter-part went on to taste the victory champagne in the same races.

Singapore saw the team lose 25 crucial points in both the Drivers and Constructors standings as Hamilton's gearbox gave way, while Button inherited 2nd place but simply did not have the pace that his team-mate had to challenge for pole or the win.

And now it seems too little, too late, as Red Bull have upped their game and taken two consecutive front row lock outs and maximised every situation they have been in (without Grosjean's antics at Suzuka, few would have bet against Webber completing a Red Bull 1-2). Meanwhile, Button qualified 11th at Korea and was subsequently taken out in the midfield dicing, while Hamilton suffered a second successive mechanical failure which altered the balance significantly and was lucky to survive with a point after having the misfortune to run over some loose astro turf and have it wrap itself around the car.

Hamilton had everything go against him at Korea
Hamilton is 62 points behind with four races to go, while Button is 84 points adrift and both have ruled themselves out of the title chase. The team have slipped to 3rd in the Constructors Championship, with the gap to Red Bull having almost doubled in the space of one race to 83 points. The 2012 season has gone from a great chance of both titles to having to stare at dust in the trophy cabinet for another year. Where have I seen McLaren do this before..?

The 2013 partnership of Button and Perez will be interesting as both possess a driving style which is kind on the tyres which will help in race conditions. However, with exception of Button at Spa, I have yet to see either consistently deliver truly outstanding qualifying performances given the performance of their car (neither of them are beating their team-mates in the head-to-head comparisons). I personally think McLaren will miss Hamilton next season (who I think letting go was a big mistake for the team but that's another story), especially when a large share of the victories this season have come from the front row of the grid. It adds more fuel to the idea that the team have consistently been complacent throughout the year, and the inability to tie Hamilton down as early as they could might well be seen as a failure as the next few years pan out.

What impression can Perez make for McLaren?

But in the present, once again McLaren look set to be a sideshow rather than a title protagonist as the battle at the top is now realistically down to a two-horse race. 2010 is one of the closest examples to what is happening to the team this season, although Hamilton and Button were involved in incidents that cost them big points and eventually the car performance wilted away as Webber, Alonso and Vettel were left to realistically challenge for the title at Abu Dhabi.

Except in this season of 2012, where the margins are so tight and the competition is fierce, any loss of points means you have a mountain to climb. But in the case of McLaren, any points lost adds more salt to the wound in what should have been their year.