2011 Season Preview – McLaren

Team Name : Vodafone McLaren Mercedes

Location : Woking, UK

Team Principal : Martin Whitmarsh

Technical Director : Paddy Lowe

Drivers : Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button

Chassis : MP4-26

Engine : Mercedes-Benz FO 108Y

First Season : 1966

Races Entered : 685

Pole Positions : 146

Race wins : 169

Points scored in 2010 : 454

World Championships : 8

McLaren – the name might not evoke the same passion or frenzy like Ferrari, but it is the most revered and respected in Formula 1. Formed by Bruce McLaren in 1963, the team is the second oldest on the grid after their Italian rivals. The New Zealander remains one of the very few to win a race while driving a car bearing his own name. But championship success eluded them until 1974. Till then, McLaren was a successful Can-Am racing team. Unfortunately, Bruce did not live long enough to see his team triumph in the championship – he was killed in a testing accident in 1970.

After the first championship title, the British team had to wait for an entire decade before they won again. But by then, the team had undergone a sea-change. Ron Dennis had taken over the team entirely, and the team employed two great drivers of all-time : Alain Prost and Niki Lauda. Between them, the duo dominated the F1 scene for three years, winning two constructor’s championships for McLaren in the process. But it was only after hiring Ayrton Senna did the McLaren team really stamp its authority on the sport, stringing together a series of driver’s and constructor’s titles powered by Honda and Mercedes-Benz. In fact, the Prost-Senna rivalry of the late eighties were some of the most memorable moments in F1 history as both great men pushed each other to the limits in trying to beat each other.

After Senna’s death and Prost’s retirement, Formula 1 became Ferrari Vs McLaren – Schumacher Vs Hakkinen, to be precise. And in 1998, the Surrey-based team interpreted the rule changes better than anyone else, and wrapped up both the titles in 1998. In ’99, the Flying Finn was able to retain his crown thanks to Michael breaking his leg halfway through the season. And since 1998, the team hasn’t won a single constructor’s championship – its only title success thereafter came in 2008, when Lewis Hamilton wrapped up his championship at the last round in Brazil. The figures reveal that McLaren has more often been in the fight for driver’s crowns – they lost it by a tiny margin in 2003, 2005 and 2007. It seems strange that the best (arguably) F1 team in the pitlane has had only 8 constructors championship in all these years.

And they are, no doubt, the best technical team in F1 right now. Starting 2009 with a lower mid-field car and then transforming it into a race winner in half a season speaks volumes about their development capability. And yet, losing design genius Adrian Newey to Red Bull Racing was a major blow for the team, since they no longer had the straight-out-of-the-box speed that Newey’s creations always seemed to possess. Still, there is no dearth of talented designers in Woking, as the F-duct proved. The team used the system to good effect last year, taking away massive chunks of points as rivals hastily brought out their own versions of the rear wing stalling device.

They also had the best driver line-up last year : Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button. Both drivers punched well above their weight, and drove well outside the limit of the car without making stupid mistakes like the other championship contenders. Hamilton seemed to have an advantage last year on the more durable Bridgestones, but Button is a past master at making tyres last longer, and will push his more fancied team mate closer than last year. But just where will the McLaren slot in, in the pecking order?

The team chose to delay the new car’s test debut, citing extra wind tunnel time obtained and also a chance to analyse the Pirelli tyres in isolation on the MP4-25. Sadly, that decision seems to have backfired, with the MP4-26 giving them just half the mileage of Ferrari or Red Bull thanks to frequent reliability issues. Worse still, the car also seems to be lacking a fair amount of downforce. The design is certainly radical – those radiator inlets and the extreme exhaust solutions indicate some unconventional ideas. Although the team have a huge package to bolt on for Australia, the test sessions give the impression that McLaren are in for another year of catching up/maximising the flyaway races. The drivers have been sporting slightly worried faces and Mercedes may have leap-frogged them.

If there’s one thing we have learnt to do over the years, it’s not to underestimate McLaren or write them off. Not for nothing are they the most capable team in the paddock, and not for nothing are their drivers world champions. If Red Bull or Ferrari drop the ball, McLaren will be there to pick it up. And it wont be long before that amazing squad closes the gap to the leading team. Or if the testing form is proven to be totally misleading, and the update package for Melbourne works well, Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes are going to start sweating a lot.



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