The McLaren saga was, is and will remain part of the fabric of the 2013 season – but not for the reasons the team from Woking wanted.
On the 50th anniversary of the founding of the marque that produced such gems as the M23, the MP4/4 and the MP4/13, results have been particularly hard to come by – in fact, on paper 2013 is the worst start to a McLaren season since 1980.
When Jenson Button lapped the Jerez circuit in an astonishing 1:18:861 on the very first day of testing action, it sent shockwaves through the paddock. A lap some 0.9 seconds quicker than their nearest rivals indicated the British team were continuing their impressive end to the 2012 season that saw Button triumph in the rain at Interlagos.
Modern Formula One is notorious for its almost nauseating attention to detail, so when McLaren admitted a suspension component being fitted upside down was at ‘fault’ for the astounding lap time it raised a few eyebrows along the pitlane. The corrections were made and the MP4/28 duly underwhelmed in the second test in Barcelona, 1.3 off of Nico Rosberg’s pace-setting Mercedes.
From the start understeer appeared a major hurdle for the new car, with BBC analyst Gary Anderson commenting it looked ‘difficult’ to tame. As metaphors go, ‘difficult’ proved to be an understatement in the weeks that followed, as McLaren struggled to come to terms with a front wing design that proved inherently un-sophisticated.
In Melbourne matters appeared to go from bad to worse as the MP4/28 resembled the Australian national animal, pogo-ing across the Albert Park bumps. Button and Perez found it impossible to find a balance with the centre of gravity in a machine in such disarray, and the fact the Briton scraped 2 points for 9th seemed a minor miracle as subsequent races unfolded.
Podium out of reach
Malaysia seemed to suit the MP4/28 better than the street circuit of Melbourne, playing to its aerodynamic preference for long, sweeping corners and fast straights. Button translated an 8th place on the grid to a 5th place in the closing stages of the Grand Prix – with the Mercedes of Nico Rosberg in 4th being held up by team orders that forbade him from passing team-mate Lewis Hamiton in 3rd within reach for the McLaren man. A final call to the pitlane was intended as the springboard for an assault on the final step of the rostrum but, in an all-too familiar re-occurence of recent McLaren pitlane blunders, Button was sent on his way without one of those all-important Pirelli tyres. His race, and McLaren’s best chance of an early-season podium, was over.
Sergio Perez was a willing recruit to the McLaren cause in September 2012; unsurprisingly things didn’t go the way he would have hoped and unremarkable showings in the first flyaway events saw him draw criticism from across the F1 spectrum. Undeterred, or perhaps fired-up, the Mexican went on the attack in Bahrain and duly got a little too close for comfort to team-mate Button – even ramming his rival’s diffuser in his bid for points. A 6th place, under the circumstances, seemed like a good stick with which to beat his detractors…but no. Button branded him ‘aggresive’, while Team Principal Martin Whitmarsh struggled to defend the youngster’s actions in the face of criticism from Fernando Alonso and Ferrari, who claimed Perez had been weaving excessively across the circuit.
Things reached a head in Monaco, where the tight confines of the circuit saw the former Sauber man muscle his way past key rivals in impressive style; ‘impressive’ becoming ‘calamitous’ when he attempted to subdue Kimi Raikkonen and unceremoniously crashed into the Lotus man. Unable to continue, further points were thrown away on a day, and in a season, where McLaren need them most. Raikkonen contented himself with voicing his desire to ‘punch him in the face’.
In F1 terms, halting development on a car doesn’t explicitly mean shutting down the design and engineering departments for the remainder of the season. In reality, McLaren’s claim that work has finished on the MP4/28 merely means the main bulk of attention has switched to the upcoming MP4/29 for 2014, while isolated departments and personnel will continue to persevere on this season’s car. Updates have continuously come on stream since testing began, as you would expect with a team like McLaren – their reputation for developing themselves out of problems and disappointments will be sorely tested in the second half of the year.
Hopes and expectations
Jenson Button has voiced his belief that McLaren may well fight for a podium in Spa when action resumes, but his bold claim has left many clutching their sides in laughter. On paper, the circuit may well suit the MP4/28 with its sweeping turns and reliance on high-speed aero efficiency, much in the way Sepang complemented the car. However, Sepang was back in March – development by their rivals could have left McLaren trailing. 2009 was the last time the premier British team faced a mountain of such comparable scale, and they bounced back with two late-season wins that netted them 3rd in the constructors table.
This time around, beating Force India to 5th seems their only objective.