When having a ponder over what to write (this happens most weeks, I promise) a little while back, I thought that I’d put together some kind of opinion as to why McLaren has struggled recently, a column which would likely have been relatively scathing. The fact of the matter is that for such a well-resourced team over the past few years, they’ve handicapped themselves both early in the seasons (through overambitious and poor car designs) and continue that deficit right on through via questionable strategy choices and sloppy pit work.
You might be tempted to believe that this… misadventure… was one of the core reasons behind them losing the services of their prized asset, Lewis Hamilton. You’d likely be right. Put simply from the outside, their recent troubles seem to have coincided with the loss of a traditionally strong leader in Ron Dennis and his subsequent replacement, the hugely likeable, yet seemingly vulnerable Martin Whitmarsh. How apposite when the country of my birth is coming to terms with the recent departure of the divisive Lady Thatcher. You could wince at her policies and you could dislike her with an uncommon ferocity. What you could never question, however, is the power of her leadership. For Thatcher, think Dennis.
Yet I find myself in a kind mood, which is coupled with the realization that as in seasons past, if anybody can turn this around, McLaren can. If I write a column this week telling you how awful McLaren is, there’s every chance they’ll leave me with egg on my face by winning this weekend’s race in China. Unlike McLaren, I’m going to be risk averse then. So let’s look at whether and how McLaren can make life an awful lot more comfortable.
Statistically, this is McLaren’s worst start to a season since the year 2000 (where reliability proved the issue, rather than a slow car). The first two races have yielded two ninth-place finishes and absolutely no realistic prospects of a victory. However, the progress between the race in Melbourne and Sepang was already noticeable. Without a disastrous visit to the pits, Jenson Button should and likely would have brought the car home at worst in fifth place. That level of improvement has the potential to also continue race-by-race. McLaren, unlike their rivals, decided on revolution rather than evolution in their 2013 car design. This radical concept may have tripped them up so far as they struggle to unlock the car’s potential; but the core part of that is, there’s an awful lot of development that is actually there to be unlocked in the car. Whereas their competitors will have a limited scope with which to drag extra speed out of what is essentially a development of a 2012 model, the ceiling for McLaren is comparatively limitless. Look at it this way; in Melbourne, McLaren’s average pace was 2.4 seconds off Red Bull. In Malaysia, that had been reduced to 0.4. Pretty impressive when looked at in those terms – and more so when one considers that between the two races, there was little chance of development, no opportunity to bring out new parts. Alongside this marginally greater air of positivity, McLaren’s record at digging itself out of a hole is second to none. In 2009 and 2011, the team seriously struggled with the early incarnations of their cars, yet went on to win races. Even the 2012 car faced early troubles, yet ended the season as the quickest machine on track.
So, rather than questioning why they haven’t reverted to their undeniably rapid 2012 machine, or joining the slightly premature calls for the return of Ron Dennis, let’s keep a wary eye on the team’s progress. If they can work out the intricacies of the ride height and suspension on the new machine by Barcelona, there’s every chance the team will be there or thereabouts in the mix-up by the end of the season.
By way of a swift preview of this weekend’s race, of course all eyes will be on the inter-team battle at Red Bull. Expect half-hearted platitudes from the Webber side of the garage, and a slightly more humble shoe-gazing attitude from Team Vettel. However, what will happen once the helmet lids are flipped down? What will happen if the two start side by side on the grid come Sunday? That’s where the real intrigue will play out.
Away from the tension in the champion’s garage, Fernando Alonso and Ferrari will be desperate to make up for their faux-pas at the last race where the team let Alonso carry on a lap too long with a crippled front wing, causing him to crash out of the race. Much as the Spaniard claims that “everybody suffers some DNFs across the season” they are that much harder to digest when caused by a basic (read daft) team error.
Mercedes will enter the race with some confidence – it was in Shanghai last year that Nico Rosberg secured the team’s first victory in its modern guise, and there’s a good chance of another successful trip out to the track. Although technical, it is a circuit that encourages overtaking, and the long back straight will suit the powerful Mercedes engine unit.
Once again, Lotus will be playing with the big boys, and after a slightly disappointing Malaysian race (by their ever-growing standards) the Enstone team will be hoping to see Kimi at the very least keeping the leaders honest.
My predictions so far this season have been, without exception, hopeless – my tip for the win this weekend? Vettel.
And as for McLaren… well… let’s just wait and see, eh?!
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