• GP Week

McLaren back on top

Kate Walker
April 9, 2012
McLaren has made a strong start to the season and has the fastest car in qualifying © Getty Images
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It was in Jerez in early February that I got my first real indication that the MP4-27 would be this year's car to beat.

On Wednesday evening, Jenson Button met with the media in the McLaren motorhome to discuss his first two days behind the wheel of that season's car. While the British driver's comments were mild and cautionary, his body language told a very different story. Big gestures accompanied an irrepressible grin and expansive hand gestures.

Meeting with the media 24 hours later was Lewis Hamilton, and the story was the same. The car felt good, he said, but it was too early to say anything more. But the excitement pouring off the McLaren driver was palpable - he was in the best mood the media had seen in months, fizzing with confidence and making jokes.

The drivers may not have wanted to risk making comments that would come back to haunt them, but the sense was that the boys in Woking had delivered a strong championship contender for the 2012 season.

Two front-row lockouts in two races, one race win, and two P3 finishes proves that McLaren have certainly got it right this year. And it's about time. Since Hamilton won the 2008 drivers' championship, McLaren have not arrived at the first grand prix of the season with a car capable of challenging for the win.

The MP4-24 was an absolute dog, although they improved it over the course of the year. The 2010 car was better, and again aged well, but it wasn't good enough. As for the MP4-26, the car was a failure in winter testing, but a contender in Melbourne. Red Bull were utterly dominant last year, to the extent that it masked the strengths of the McLaren.

So what did McLaren do right this year? There has been no one magic bullet, no single innovation that their rival teams are protesting against. Where the boys from Woking have done themselves proud this season is in delivering a solid car that ticks all the boxes.

The MP4-27 proved itself to be reliable throughout pre-season testing, and it has continued to be reliable in the two grands prix weekends we've seen thus far. Unlike rivals Mercedes, McLaren have been able to deliver a strong qualifying session on Saturday without sacrificing their performance on Sunday. Partly because McLaren have traditionally run a low-slung nosecone, the designers were able to evolve the MP4-26, keeping its strengths and improving its weaknesses in a season where their fellow competitors have had to rethink their aerodynamics thanks to the unpopular platypus nose.

Where last year's car needed improving was in the high-speed corners, and qualifying at the Malaysian Grand Prix showed that the team have nailed it. The excitement shown by Hamilton and Button in Jerez was borne of having a car that they knew was quick right out of the box.

But the real challenge now faced by McLaren is that of the development race. Being ahead is one thing. Staying ahead is another.

While it's preferable to be in the position of hunted, not hunter, McLaren will need to ensure that they stay ahead of the field when it comes to the introduction of upgrades and new parts. Where in recent years the Woking team have proved themselves to be highly adept at catching the competition, their last successful pre-season innovation was 2010's F-duct, which was quickly replicated throughout the pitlane.

In order to ensure that McLaren stay in the lead of the constructors' championship, the team will need to be first in line with the in-season innovations, leaving their competitors racing to replicate while the brains in Woking continue to create. Time spent recreating the innovations of others, while necessary in order to remain competitive, is development time lost for one's own ideas.

Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton have mutual respect for one another © Getty Images
But even if the team continues to get it right with the car, the biggest threat to McLaren's success this season comes from within. One of McLaren's great strengths as a team is also a potential weakness. By refusing to nominate a number one driver and allowing Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button to fight it out on track, McLaren risk recreating the 2007 season in which both Hamilton and then-team-mate Fernando Alonso lost out on the drivers' title by a single point.

Two strong drivers both in contention for the championship risk taking points off each other in a way that a team willing to enforce team orders does not need to worry about. References to McLaren in 2007 bring to mind the poisonous atmosphere found in the team garage that season, but there is no suggestion that relations between Button and Hamilton are anything other than amicable. The two men have a long history dating back to the younger man's karting career, and they share a deep mutual respect for each other's talent.

Fierce competitors on track they may be, but there are no behind-the-scenes demands for special treatment from either man. Both Hamilton and Button prefer to let their results speak for themselves. But even if emotional sparks aren't flying, there is always the risk that two cars which spend a lot of time running together can take each other out, especially if the drivers are allowed to fight each other for victory.

Red Bull suffered a dreadful result at the 2010 Turkish Grand Prix, when Sebastian Vettel retired following a collision with Mark Webber when the two were running in the lead. A few laps later, when the McLaren pair were leading the race, a collision was narrowly avoided as Button passed Hamilton for the lead.

The Woking team could easily have suffered a similar fate to their rivals from Milton Keynes. It's a risk you run when you allow your drivers to race, and - from the looks of the qualifying results we've seen thus far - it's a risk McLaren will be running rather often this season.

There were points during the opening stages of this year's Malaysian Grand Prix, when visibility was at its lowest, where Button was riding too close for comfort on his team-mate's tail, leading to worried faces on the pitwall. And when the 2009 world champion collided with Narain Karthikeyan in the same race, Hamilton was so close behind that he had to take evasive action to avoid being caught up in the incident.

But even if the drivers are able to avoid each other on track, a championship can still be lost with two world champions in a very strong car. Formula One moves too quickly for advantages to last for long. While Red Bull are on the back foot at the moment, they will be putting all of their resources into improving their car with a view to winning both championships for the third year running. And with three days of in-season testing before the Spanish Grand Prix, updates for the European leg of the season will be well-developed by the time the F1 circus arrives at the Circuit de Catalunya. Any advantage McLaren have at the moment must be maximised less it prove itself to be only temporary. Because the MP4-27 is not a dominant car in the manner of the RB7, and nor is it perfect.

The MP4-27 is good but it's not perfect © Getty Images
While the McLaren drivers have not experienced the struggles of Mercedes team-mates Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg, tyre degradation - especially on the rears - is still an issue. The car is no Sauber where rubber is concerned, and there's always room for improvement. During the Sepang race, Button complained of his inability to warm up the tyres in the wet, blaming his crash with Karthikeyan on his difficulty with the Pirellis.

The wet conditions were certainly a factor - McLaren were said to have gambled on a dry race when it came to their Malaysian Grand Prix set-up - but any difficulties with handling in the wet need to be resolved before the circus hits traditionally rainy tracks such as Silverstone, Hockenheim, or Spa. There's a long season of racing ahead, and while McLaren are on top at the moment, they will have to fight to stay there. That's what Formula One is all about.