Have McLaren improved?

SHAKY 2013 SEASON

Woking’s illustrious and irreplaceable outfit are the darlings of many an F1 fan. I’m particularly fond of the British marque. My upbringing was rich in F1, and during the early 2000s in my formative years, I witnessed the resilience and hardiness of McLaren as they battled diligently against the might of Ferrari. Two legendary drivers, David Coulthard and Mika Hakkinen were my absolute favourites, but they were held back by speedy, yet unreliable cars.

This fascination with all things McLaren was increased twice more – by Kimi Raikkonen’s meteoric rise to the top, and Lewis Hamilton’s similarly rapid climb to the throne of World Champion. However, 2013 has been a dreadful year so far. With only one points finish worthy of double figures (Button scored 10 points in China for 5th place) the team look in trouble, especially when you compare that to last year, where they had already won three races by this point.

Comparisons to last year are futile though. They are not the same team, with huge names like Lewis Hamilton and Paddy Lowe departing in 2012. The car is different too – for 2013 McLaren have tried what Red Bull and Ferrari have mastered in the past few seasons, which is a pull-rod suspension setup. This differs from conventional push-rod systems, and allows for a tighter aerodynamic package at the front. But quite clearly, the MP4-28’s version doesn’t work quite as well.

Sergio Perez is still developing as a driver, so you can perhaps excuse, or expect a lower points tally for him (even though he was supreme in the Sauber last year) however Button is F1’s longest-serving driver at the moment, and you would maybe have higher expectations of him.

FORWARDS TO THE PAST

This season is reminiscent of 2009. Can you remember that far back? The season where cars were very short and stubby, slicks returned, and only a few cars had KERS. Very different from now, with the long cars and omnipresent KERS. Despite these differences, though, McLaren’s plight is very similar. Their driver lineup consists of a World Champion (2009 Hamilton, 2013 Button) and a young driver who is in his third season, and impressed the year before (2009 Kovalainen, 2013 Perez).

The points they’ve scored are not drastically different either. Below is a line graph, depicting the sporadic and inconsistent points scored up to round eleven of each season.

 

Looking at this graph, you should remember that in 2009 points were only awarded to 8th place. If we take Hamilton’s 9th place in Spain 2009, McLaren get an extra two points, bringing them up to 51. But of course, points were awarded differently back then too. If we convert those 51 points into ‘Metric’ (2010-present) points, McLaren net themselves a hefty 107 for 2009. So compared to 2009, they’re technically doing worse, considering that tally plus a win and second place for Hamilton by this point as well.

So this is uncharted territory: We have to look really far back to find McLaren in this poor form. 2006 was a difficult year, just after losing sponsorship from West Cigarettes (before they found their feet with Vodafone) and also losing the brainpower of Adrian Newey; the team didn’t manage a win all season. However, there were 9 podiums and three pole positions, something the team will categorically NOT achieve this season.

Perhaps the most fitting comparison would be to that of 1995. The team had a decent but not brilliant season the one previous, but looked to be innovative and groundbreaking for the season next.  In 2013 as we have discussed, they have attempted this with the Pull-rod Suspension-Aero setup, which doesn’t look to have worked. In 1995, the height of their technology meant that a ‘needle’ pointy nose on the front of the car and a small wing on top of the airbox (not mandated for all cars for a camera) were considered revolutionary, but the former paid no benefits, and the airbox-mounted wing was much larger than the Television camera housings and provided unnecessary drag to an area of the car which required no such aerodynamic intervention.

Back to the graph though – it’s clear to see that while the start of the season has been not only erratic but also dismal, there is an undeniable peak forming, with the summit in Hungary. Whether they can continue to climb through the Asian season is a mystery, but the results indicate that they have indeed made a step forward.

TOOLS OF SELF-DESTRUCTION

Past allegories aside, the team are questionably starting to turn things around. Any common BBC viewers will remember David Coulthard’s unfortunately accurate remarks in Melbourne:

“It’s not just slow in the corners, it looks slow in a straight line as well!”

Jonathan Neale believes that the problem they’ve had with the car is the translation from Wind-tunnel to actual, physical data. The car’s predecessor, MP4-27 was the fastest car for much of the 2012 season. It’s hard to fathom how, but the team seemed to go blunderingly backwards from then, losing much ground on competitors.

Do you remember the first test in Jerez? In January? McLaren topped the sheets on Day 1. Rather embarrassingly, this was because of a chassis component being fitted wrongly, and it was unsafe to leave it in place. Perhaps it would have been a credible decision to make this fitting ‘right’…?

Perhaps the car’s sluggish start to life can be forgiven, since the wind tunnels were telling the team that it was faster than it really was – but by now, a team as prestigious as McLaren should’ve caught up. Okay, I’m being mean now.

UPGRADES

McLaren’s sporting director Sam Michael revealed that the team are not bringing a huge raft of improvements to Monza this weekend. This is because of two key things: 1) It’s Monza – where there is absolutely minimal downforce required, and 2) The team have now switched their developmental focus to 2014’s car, which will likely be given the chassis designation MP4-29.

Michael continued, and noted that the team are looking to bring a big package of upgrades to the streets of Singapore at the end of the month. This will provide the team with a fighting chance in the Asian and Southern American rounds, as the season begins to wind down. Perhaps they can net that illusive podium after all – Button was definitely on course for one in Spa, but a dreadful strategy call butchered that chance. I’m baffled as to why he pitted, actually.

HAPPY ANNIVERSARY

Finally, in a much happier tone, it’s fantastic to celebrate McLaren’s 50th Anniversary as an operating race car company. New Zealander Bruce McLaren first set up camp in Woking on September 2nd, 1963, and the team is one of the most successful in history. To join in the celebrations, head over to The McLaren Website. 

 

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