The challenges facing McLaren in 2012

Friday 03rd February 2012, 21:49 by Daniel Chalmers 

McLaren are desperate to add more championships to their recent woeful tally, but they have big hurdles to overcome to fulfil that ambition in 2012.

McLaren are such an incredibly strong team, but since the late 90s something seems to be lacking. It has either been a lack of speed or chronic unreliability, and then when neither of these two problems have occurred they have got involved in a scandal (think back to spygate 2007). Things just haven’t come together for them recently, with the exception of Lewis’s title in 2008 - though that was a narrow victory.

Currently the problems hindering McLaren’s ambitions include bad starts to a season, which have been a theme since 2009. McLaren could also be the team that suffers most from the blown diffuser ban and not Red Bull, as many expect. Even their world champion driver line-up poses some concern.

For the past three seasons the Woking team have had to make full use of their fast development rate, to recover from poor starts to the season. In 2009 they didn’t do a good job of understanding the new regulations, and started the year with a dreadful car. Over the year they gained over 2.5 seconds worth of performance through upgrades and even won races. Imagine if McLaren could have started the season with that level of performance.

Button testing the MP4-26 in Barcelona (© McLaren)

In 2010 their bad start wasn’t quite as obvious due to rain saving them in Australia and China. In the first round in Bahrain Lewis Hamilton qualified a whopping 1.116 seconds behind Sebastian Vettel. In that qualifying session we saw TV pictures of McLaren mechanics with their heads in their hands. It wasn’t until Turkey that the team started to really take on the Red Bull in dry conditions.

In 2011 McLaren had a disastrous winter testing which they managed to salvage just before Melbourne. Towards the end of the season the car was quick, if not quicker than the Red Bull. Again just imagine if they had been able to start the season as they ended it.

Whilst you can’t win a title at the start of the season, you can certainly lose it as McLaren have been demonstrating. You can’t just ease your way into an F1 season and hope to do enough later on in the year to win it.

History shows that to win a championship, the start of the season is very often the key. If you look at Renault’s championships in 2005 and 2006, they were both built on a strong start to the season. The same applies to Brawn GP’s success in 2009, and also Red Bull last year.

If McLaren want to win a title in 2012 it’s vital they have a smooth pre-season, and have a car that’s capable of winning right from the go at Melbourne. If they could start with a fast car, and then apply their exceptional development rate to it, they would stand a much greater chance of success.

This year there is every chance that they could have a strong winter test. The MP4-27 appears to be an evolution of last year’s car which was already very quick and reliable at the end of 2011. It’s not particularly radical as previous McLarens have been. This should mean less of a chance of problems due to new innovative ideas not working out and disrupting the test.

McLaren's 2012 challenger the MP4-27 (© McLaren)

Hopefully they should go into the tests with a good platform to work with to enable them to get plenty of data, before piling upgrades onto the car as the test progresses.

At the McLaren launch Button said: "I personally didn't feel we were going to win races last year after the first test." Yet McLaren win six grands prix.

He added: "The most important thing is to get miles done in testing, so we have time to fine-tune the car so you arrive at the first race and you are not worried about anything. We are all positive now and hopefully that will continue in testing."

One of the key traps McLaren may have fallen into is being slightly too conservative, to ensure they don’t have a problematic winter testing. It might be that they have pitched it perfectly. We will have to wait and see.

The ban of the blown diffuser could pose a bigger threat to the team than many anticipate. The popular opinion is that Red Bull would be the biggest loser. However the word on the street is that McLaren exploited the blown diffuser even more so than the Milton Keynes squad.

When you look back to Silverstone when limits were initially introduced, McLaren had an abysmal weekend. The highest placed McLaren on the grid was a gigantic 1.499 seconds off Mark Webber’s pole time.

Fast forward to the next race in Germany (when the rules were changed back) and suddenly McLaren were right back on the pace, with Lewis winning the race.

If you look at the Red Bull’s form back at Silverstone it’s clear they lost a bit of their advantage, but they still remained the pacesetters. Ferrari made quite big gains with the ban in place, and McLaren fell off the edge of a cliff.

The evidence from the 2011 British GP suggests that McLaren could be the team that has suffered most from the blown diffuser ban by far. If that event was an accurate indicator, then McLaren will have had a lot of downforce to claw back in recent months, which will have been a very difficult challenge.

At the Red Bull title celebration in Milton Keynes Christian Horner told Sky: "Obviously the blown diffuser disappearing next year is something that affects certainly the front-running teams to a greater or lesser extent. It's impossible to say 'Are we more affected than others?'”

He added: "Arguably one or two others were making more effective use of the blown diffuser than we were. So we'll see when we get to Melbourne."

For the third year running McLaren have their two world champion drivers in Hamilton and Button. Although both are great drivers you wonder if McLaren wished they could be morphed into one super driver.

Button has the ability to look after the tyres, drives smoothly, rarely making an error in the process and is great at reading wet races. However he doesn’t have the incredible raw pace that Lewis possesses when he is on his best form.

In turn Lewis has the incredible raw pace, but has clearly struggled at times with the Pirelli tyres, and is liable to mistakes, unlike Jenson.

Whilst both drivers regularly show moments of greatness, it would perhaps be fair to say that Fernando Alonso and Vettel are closer to being the complete all round package. You need to be the all round package to win the championship, particularly in such a competitive era.

If McLaren could successfully morph Lewis and Jenson into one driver, they would have the perfect weapon to take on Fernando and Sebastian in the drivers' championship. Unfortunately that’s not a possibility. Both drivers need to work on their weaknesses. Simple as that.

Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton (© McLaren)

The other problem for McLaren is that Vettel and Alonso are the clear number one drivers in their respective teams. The Spaniard scored 68.4% of Ferrari’s points in 2011 and the young German scored 60.2% of Red Bull’s points.

At McLaren, Button (who emerged on top of the inter-team battle) scored 54.2% of the team’s points. That’s much less of a margin than Vettel and Alonso had on their team mates.

The problem is that Button and Hamilton are very likely to cancel each other. This will help Vettel and Alonso if they can retain their superiority over their team mates in 2012.

In a championship with fine margins, this is a crucial factor that could shift the driver’s championship away from McLaren.

Furthermore the team have got to make sure they stop making silly mistakes during race weekends, as this cost them at least two or three race victories last season. Think back to Jenson’s 3 stop strategy in Monaco backfiring because of safety cars, or the misunderstanding that resulted in him starting in 13th at Spa.

Then you have McLaren under-fuelling Lewis at the British GP, and also not sending him out for a banker lap in Q3 at Monaco. The team have got to cut out these errors in 2012 to avoid losing big chunks of points cheaply.

You can be sure McLaren will probably win races this year as they have done in 14 of the last 15 seasons. However the big question is whether they can put all the ingredients together over a whole season to win a championship.

Will 2012 finally be the year when they put the perfect recipe together? The main issue with McLaren on the evidence of recent years, is you wouldn’t want to bet too much of your money on it.

To beat the supreme force of Red Bull Racing nothing less than perfection will do.

You can follow Daniel Chalmers on Twitter

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