McLaren Season Review
Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button have dropped hints in recent days running up to the season that all was not well with the new McLaren.
The team have blown hot and cold in recent years. Concern over the new car was going to inevitably raise fears that they were heading into another of their ‘cold’ seasons.
Just two years ago they started the season with a car that wasn’t able to reach Q2 on some occasions. In 2006 they failed to win a single race and their 2004 season was only saved by a substantial redesign of the car.
The MP4-26 was a radical in design both outwardly – with its unconventional U-shaped sidepods – and underneath, where the team had tested an unusual exhaust solution. But the team have had a slow start to testing and struggled to get the mileage they needed.
What made it particularly difficult to tell if the car was poor was that McLaren had taken a different approach to the off-season than their rivals have.
Most teams had their regular drivers on hand for the first run on the new Pirelli tyres in Abu Dhabi at the end of last year. Similarly, most had their new cars ready for the first test at Barcelona.
McLaren, however, ran Gary Paffett and Oliver Turvey at Abu Dhabi, and turned up at Valencia with the 2010 car.
In theory, the advantage of that approach was that it gave their drivers a chance to experience the new tyres in a chassis they were familiar with.
The disadvantage was they put less mileage on their new car than their rivals. Ferrari had covered twice as much distance with their new car as McLaren had with theirs.
McLaren have repeatedly demonstrated that their excellent resources allow them to bounce back after starting the season with a car that’s off the pace.
Other aspects of the rules changes should play into their hands. The Mercedes Kinetic Energy Recovery System was the best in 2009 and McLaren won two races with it.
And after several years of chopping and changing drivers they appear to have settled on a pairing that are both fast and get on well. The strength of their driver line-up was the difference between them finishing second instead of third last year.
Did they put up a challenge to Red Bull and Ferrari?
After a terrible time in testing, that was indeed what they did.
If you had told McLaren in February that Jenson Button would finish runner-up in the drivers' championship and that they would score six victories, they would probably have taken that.
"We exist to win," is a mantra from early in the Ron Dennis era but, in pre-season testing they couldn't do 10 laps!
"It was the worst pre-season testing I can remember since the first active ride Williams at Rio in 1988!" says technical director paddy Lowe, with feeling.
They had some radical ideas around the exhaust exits. It was dubbed 'The Octopus' by the media but in fact was nothing like an octopus and actually came out into a long slot that blew to the edge of the floor in the running board area.
Strangely enough though, it was not the trick stuff that was causing the team problems.
"There was general exhaust unreliability," Lowe explains. "The basic bundle, the collector, was staggeringly unreliable. Even our baseline 'keep you running' system was worse than the radical new one!
With the Melbourne season-opener fast approaching, the team looked as if it was staring at a repeat of 2009 but an 11th hour change of direction, with a new tail pipe and fixes to the primaries fixed the problems.
"We suddenly got reliability and a good chunk of the performance we'd seen in the tunnel," Lowe says. It was enough for Lewis Hamilton to finish second to Vettel and a huge relief to everyone at Woking.
In fact, McLaren had done the best interpretation of Red Bull's exhaust blown diffuser concept and seemed quite put out when the FIA somewhat oddly took mid season steps to reduce its effectiveness.
"The FIA, not driven by them I suspect," Lowe says, "suddenly made a stricter interpretation that said moving parts in the engine creating downforce was illegal.
"It was an exact parallel to what was said of active suspension (in 1993), where the piston of the suspension was the medium and deemed illegal.
"That was also done mid-season but the irony is that those cars were extremely exhaust blown. We said to the court then, 'What about the engines?' But nothing was said. We'd waited 18 years and they changed their minds. I'm sure Charlie (Whiting) found it very painful and regretted ever going in that direction...
The problem with exhaust blowing has always been the on/off throttle imbalance. One of the reasons the Williams active car (FW14B of '92) was so good was that teams could use the active ride to manage the on/off balance. They could change the ride height. That's why all the work started on off-throttle modes.
When the FIA came to clamp down on it, all the engine manufacturers had each followed different philosophies. The FIA worked very hard but it was an insoluble problem. The upshot, of course, was that post-Silverstone everything reverted back for the remainder of the season.
Lowe says that the new DRS concept was fascinating from an engineering perspective.
"There were two pathways the teams took. Mercedes pioneered a large DRS difference but we came at it from a different direction, valuing race performance with more circuits being maximum downforce tracks."
A distinctive feature of McLaren's MP4-26 was its U-shaped sidepod, which was done for airflow reasons and presented a challenge in passing the crash test.
Button found the MP4-26 much easier to drive than the previous car, with the ability to sit low in it.
"He also had more confidence in it, particularly at the rear. He's a different driver to Lewis. He needs to feel the car right before putting in throttle, rather than dealing with it. Several times he said this was the best car he'd ever driven."
Like everyone, McLaren was concerned about Pirelli wear in pre-season testing and in what you could do with set-up to reduce it. The team was still quite surprised to find it less of a problem than expected when the season began.
"In Spain we were nearly a second off in qualifying but almost won the race with Lewis," Lowe says. "On Saturday night we had been about to slit our wrists. And for the first time everyone thought we were seeing Seb's genuine pace, whereas before it was assumed he had a lot in hand. That was a good feeling.
Lowe admits that, operationally, McLaren did not have a vintage year.
"Our 'did not score' count was too high," he says, "events in which we didn't get the points that the car had the pace to deliver. Red Bull's count was extraordinarily low. When they fitted the wrong tyres to Seb at Monaco it became the masterstroke -- very irritating!
Jenson also suffered three mechanical issues - an oil cooler in Germany, a wheel at Silverstone and the clutch at Monza.
Lewis had a frustrating time. Some of it was mistakes on the teams side, some on his. Monaco was the classic. The strategists picked a Q3 strategy that could have been a blinding decision but backfired. And he compounded it by missing the chicane and losing the lap. That typified his season.
“There was a bit of that on Jenson's side as well. But he gained confidence, enjoyed his driving and went beyond the classic Jenson people describe in terms of race craft. “
"Some of the moves he pulled were just fantastic. There was an extraordinary overtaking count at Spa and in Canada. Lewis had been the king of overtaking for a while and here was Jenson doing it too."
For the first time in his career, in fact, Hamilton was bettered by a man in the same car. Button finished championship runner-up while Lewis was fifth, 43 points adrift.
At times Hamilton appeared distracted and perhaps a combination of frustration at trying to take on Vettel in a superior Red Bull and personal issues got on top of him. From mid-season on he clearly wanted to press the 'reset' button. Expect him to be stronger in 2012, machinery willing.
Many have stated that this year has been Jenson Button’s best season in Formula One to date, yet he finished 122 points the championship winner Sebastian Vettel and only three race victories.
That’s saying something.
He was not the Jenson Button of 2010, in fact, he was much closer to Lewis Hamilton throughout the season, had three great victories along the way, and managed to beat his highly rated team-mate in the World Championship.
Again, his qualifying wasn’t his strong point but got away with it due to the Ferrari’s and Mercedes’ being less competitive, and the absence of Robert Kubica in the Renault.
Nevertheless, his best moment came at the Canadian Grand Prix. Qualified down in seventh, the race didn’t look at all great from there. His team-mate was closing him quickly, which led to them both colliding, with Hamilton retiring and Button coming into the pits for repairs, demoting him further down the grid.
It was uphill from there.
The safety car though came to his aid backing the back up. Then the race got stopped and he wasdown in tenth. With the pack bunched up again, Button was able to dispatch the slower cars around him.
That was until he had a collision with another top driver, Alonso. With neither driver giving up into a tight “one car corner”, it was always going to end into tears for both. Alonso had to retire with his car beached, and Button gained a puncture.
The incident brought the safety car out. It helped Button’s cause, but he had it all to do again as he was dead last.
With the track drying up, and Button being two seconds a lap faster than those around him, he quickly made his way up the field, with the help of DRS. He closed down on Sebastian Vettel and on the last lap, Vettel ran wide, gifting Button victory.
And what a victory it was.
Button finished 43 points ahead of his team-mate, with his team-mates troubles; he should have been ahead with a bigger margin.
Meanwhile, Lewis Hamilton had one of the most controversial seasons for an F1 driver to date. Caught up in several occasions, a major outburst at the stewards and his fellow drivers, and being beaten by his team-mate for the very first time in his F1 career.
Despite all the drama, he had some magic moments, such as his race wins in China and Germany, both where a stroke of masterpiece.
His win in Germany, where three drivers were in contention to win was one of his greatest victories.
With Alonso and Webber looking for a victory, Webber’s first of the season, and Alonso hungry for more after Silverstone, competition was fierce.
The cars on pace looked quite equal, certainly on the option tyres.
Webber looked to be the odds on favourite; after all, he was in a car which dominated the 2011 season, with Alonso as an outsider.
Hamilton and Webber where having the battle for the lead, with Alonso watching from behind.
Hamilton finally got past Webber, but it was not over as the top three where covered by just a few seconds.
Webber took the lead back from Hamilton, and stayed out in front for several laps, until the pit-stops.
Alonso stayed out and managed to leap-frog both drivers, but only for a few seconds as Lewis Hamilton caught the double world champion napping, and pulled a great manoeuvre going round the outside of him to regain the lead.
From that moment onwards the race looked in Hamilton’s hands as he led until the third round of pit-stops.
Alonso and Webber stayed out as it was their only hope. But it backfired, as Hamilton’s pace on the primes was better than his closest rival on the day Alonso.
All three led the race at a certain point, but the driver made the difference on the day. No discredit to Alonso, as once he was on the prime tyres, he was nowhere.
A season marred with controversy, bad performances, and personal life issues. Considering all that, he managed to get three victories and finished only 43 points behind his team-mate, who was considered to have his best season to date.
He certainly needs to bounce, as a Hamilton on form is what the sport needs.
McLaren certainly need to give their drivers a better car for their drivers to challenge for victories and the championship.
Highlights: After a bad winter testing looking as if they would be in the midfield, they managed to turn their car around to a front runner just before Melbourne.
Lowlights: Several team errors, struggled with the restrictions with the exhaust gases, and several none finishes.