It is a measure of just how dark is the cloud hanging over McLaren in it’s 50th year, that when I looked at this season’s results, they actually surprised me. Though the team trails Force India by two points at the half-way mark and its drivers Jenson Button and Sergio Perez are ninth and 12th in their championship, I had thought things were actually a lot worse, so long have been the faces on the team, so little have the cars been part of the action this year, except maybe when they’ve been trying to knock each other of the race track.
That’s how this season feels for McLaren, its first without Lewis Hamilton since 2006; a shockingly difficult car to drive thanks to a bold but mistaken switch in front suspension design, and two drivers with way too much to prove and whose agendas are getting in the way of getting things fixed.
In the circumstances Button’s 39points from a series of gritty but largely lonely strategic drives and his seven appearances in Q3 doesn’t look so bad. And Perez’s mere 18 points, four appearances in Q3 and deficit to JB in qualifying generally gives the lie to the notion that Button is being eclipsed this year.
But… Last year McLaren build a crackingly good racing car. It was comfortably the fastest at the start of the season and comfortably the fastest at the end. It should have given Lewis Hamilton his second title and maybe an incentive to stay at the team. And yet it delivered no silverware, exposed the team’s poor racecraft, blew apart the notion that McLaren are the non plus ultra when it comes to in-season development and most certainly played a part in the loss not only of Hamilton but of Paddy Lowe, the team’s technical director, who has followed Hamilton to Mercedes.
It’s not hard to spot which team has the quick car right now, nor the fact that team is very obviously moving forward, turning pace in to points… and possibly even a title.
To get back to a theme that’s cropped up more than once as we’ve compiled these half term reports, maybe McLaren’s greatest failing is its own inability to translate the pace of the MP4-27 into the MP4-28 chassis. Remember back in Australia, when McLaren went on record to say they would not be reverting to last year’s car like they actually considered doing so?. The team has more of an excuse than others: the radical switch to pull rod front suspension, for one. Then again, they must have been aware of the problems Ferrari faced in 2012, having adopted the same solution.
Jenson Button is talking up the team’s chances for this weekend in Belgium. He was in a class of his own last year, frightening Hamilton in to all those worried tweets. It’s typical of Button, who has, on all but one occasion, kept the upper lip tight. He’s certainly not shirking his responsibility to lead the team from the front.
But this season, straight off the back of last year’s appalling missed opportunity, suggests it is going to take more than a few Keep Calm and Carry On mugs and weekly staff meetings. So much of what McLaren stands for seems to be in question right now. When you have a brand — a brand from which a nascent road car business takes succour, and a commercial department that needs to sell to Vodafone’s replacement — that’s a problem. And when you are the sheer size of McLaren those problems are only amplified and need fixing. I would be amazed if the team McLaren races with next year, its last with Mercedes ahead of its debut with Honda in 2015, will be the same team as finishes this season, no matter what happens from this weekend onwards.
Half term grades
Button: B Plus