What is going wrong with McLaren?

© Jessica Western, 12 July 2012

It had started so well for McLaren. Fierce rivals Ferrari were woeful, Red Bull looked off the pace while the middle order were picking their game up. Lewis Hamilton got onto successive front rows and Jenson Button won the opening Grand Prix. It looked like it was going to be an exciting season for McLaren fans and Formula 1 fans alike. Even Hamilton’s recent win in Canada gave hope, but now the qualifying performances have started to slide and the races have seen the car almost go backwards. Button has picked up seven points in the last six races, so what has gone wrong?

Sam Michael
For many people there has been one fall guy and that is Sam Michael. After years of dismal performances the Williams team decided to restructure its management after the 2011 season. This saw Sam Michael leave his post as technical director and move to McLaren as its new sporting director. The criticism led to team principle Martin Whitmarsh to defend his colleague before the British Grand Prix. He asked for time and for Michael to be judged this time next year. McLaren fans might not be able to wait that long if poor results continue.

Team Performance
Team performances are represented by Michael and Whitmarsh as the figureheads. They are ultimately responsible for hiring staff including drivers, designing the car, training pit stop crews and race strategies. One good sign is that McLaren react well to every problem that arises, the problem is that these keep cropping up in a way you do not see at other teams. While the race strategy worked in Silverstone, it only kept Hamilton in place. At other Grand Prix it has been disastrous, witness the brilliant pole position stripped away because of a fuel problem.

Pit Stops
Where to start? The undoubted weak spot of the McLaren race experience has slowly been improving. Slowly. Early in the season the rear-left tyre on both cars proved a problem. The guy putting the tyre on was replaced and the problem seemed to go. This, however, ruined two of Hamilton’s races and ended one of Button’s when the tyre came lose. The drivers learnt too, Hamilton adjusted his entry position in order to maximise the team’s efforts. Still, there were random failures like misfiring equipment and a jack issue in Valencia pushed Hamilton further down the pack and into Pastor Maldonaldo’s sights with devastating consequences. McLaren will have to keep asking themselves why Ferrari’s pit stops are so fluid and effortless while its own are in danger of reaching Ealing comedy status.

During qualifying at the British Grand Prix, Hamilton blamed McLaren’s tyres. When the track was wet, they had the fastest car with the best grip, but when the track began to dry up, they lost heat going into the tyres and they lost grip. This led Hamilton finishing only eighth on the qualifying grid. Button’s problems were legion and were not helped by a yellow flag cutting short a flying lap. If your car only works in the rain, you are in trouble. McLaren’s luck is perhaps demonstrated by the fact that even on the wettest weekend in British summer history, not a drop touched the track during the race. McLaren’s largest failure has been to deal with the new Pirelli tyres, until that problem is solved, the car will continue to struggle.

The Car
In qualifying the car has been OK for Hamilton, but Jenson Button has struggled considerably. The major point of contention has been the nose design. When new regulations came in at the end of the 2011 season, McLaren were pretty much the only team to opt for the long gradual, graceful nose type. Everyone else went for the blunt two-tier shorter nose. As Hamilton pointed out after the race, the design changes that need to be made are too drastic to do mid-season. If this proves to be the case, McLaren will have to write off the 2012 season and hope to develop a car for the 2013 season instead. If this happens, they risk losing Hamilton’s services to a rival team and further disgruntling Button. One unthinkable solution for McLaren, that would not phase an ordinary driver that could afford it, is to rent a car for the remainder. McLaren repainting a Ferrari? Not likely to happen.

The Drivers
Neither driver has become a bad driver overnight. Both of them remain the quality drivers who won world titles. It is more than possible to argue that Hamilton has been one of the better drivers this year. His Grand Prix performances have had no luck, yet he until recently remained in the mix for the championship. As the British GP demonstrated, Sebastian Vettel is the best at leading a race, but is nowhere near as good as Hamilton at overtaking.

Button has always been a careful driver who endures as others fade. On his day he can be a good over-taker, witness his own triumph at Canada last year, but bad tyre wearing and a poor car set up are causing Button no end of problems.


Jessica Western is a freelance sports writer from London, England. She's loved motorsport since growing up in NYC and going to Indy every year with her father. Since moving to England she's found a new passion in F1.

(All photos credit: McLaren)


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