Any sympathy for McLaren?

Posted on | Author Keith Collantine

Fernando Alonso, McLaren-Mercedes, Hungary, 2007 | Daimler ChryslerRon Dennis and McLaren-Mercedes made an almighty mess of qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix.

But even though I think the punishment meted out to Alonso was just, I have some sympathy for them team over what happened.

It would be better for the sport if McLaren’s championship points were reinstated at the appeal hearing.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions (16th-century proverb)

However badly McLaren handled the controversy last Saturday, I feel their intentions were ultimately good.

Ron Dennis sets the bar high when it comes to driver pairings. His approach is simple: get the two best drivers he can afford, treat them fairly, and may the best man win.

That was the case with all McLaren’s famous pairings: Niki Lauda and Alain Prost, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna, Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard, Kimi Raikkonen and Juan-Pablo Montoya – the lot. And you can’t argue with the results – McLaren have won more of everything than any team bar Ferrari.

If only Jean Todt had operated the same philosophy during the turgid years of Michael Schumacher dominance that this decade began with. I have no doubt Schumacher would still have won his titles, but we might have been spared the sad episodes at the A1-Ring and Indianapolis in 2002, among others.

That’s why I have respect for McLaren (and why, this year, I think more highly of Ferrari than I have since the days of Gerhard Berger and Jean Alesi in the mid-’90s – even if they hardly ever won anything back then).

There are those who cynically say it’s impossible for a team to have two number one stars, treat them fairly, and have them both get along. But if every team insisted on having an absolute number one and a subservient lackey then we would be forever watching farcical races with drivers holding up rivals to benefit their team mates.

There was an appalling German touring car ‘race’ at Zandvoort last week where half the Audi team seemed to spend most of the racing pulling over for the team’s favoured sons Mattias Ekstrom and Martin Tomcyk. Do we want to see F1 turn into that? Surely not.

From what happened this weekend it’s clear that McLaren’s qualifying strategy is designed to fulfil the two requirements of maximising the regulations to be as competitive as possible, and give their two drivers as fair treatment as is possible. But applying those two desires to F1’s over-complicated qualifying regulations is very difficult, and this is where they ran into trouble.

In the third part of qualifying, the drivers need to complete as many laps as possible to use up all the fuel they can, so that they can set their qualifying times at the end of the session with a light fuel load. The more laps they do, the more fuel they get for the fuel load they start the race with.

But McLaren realised that because of the time taken to service each car in the pits, there has to be a substantial gap of time between the two cars on the track. This makes it impossible to guarantee that, at ever circuit, each of their drivers can do the same number of laps.

Therefore, they set up a rota – their drivers would alternate which one got to have the ‘extra’ lap of fuel at each track.

Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton, McLaren-Mercedes, Hungary, 2007 | Daimler ChryslerThe Hungaroring was supposed to be Alonso’s turn. But this is where things started to go wrong. Hamilton refused to let Alonso past at the start of the session, and all McLaren’s plans were thrown into disarray.

On both of Alonso’s visits to the pits during qualifying the team kept him stationary for an unusual length of time. And on the second visit, even after he was given the clear to proceed, Alonso chose to have a conversation with one of his engineers, even though he knew Hamilton was waiting behind him and time was critically short.

The end result, as we all know, is that Hamilton failed to get out in time.

Based on what we know so far, it’s not clear exactly how McLaren intended to ‘punish’ Hamilton for preventing Alonso from getting an extra lap of fuel in. Perhaps they would have changed his race startegy to make it less favourable, perhaps they would have given Alonso the ‘extra’ lap for the next two races.

It’s academic, because Alonso clearly took it upon himself to make sure Hamilton didn’t get an extra lap in. McLaren tried to support him, because Hamilton’s action had provoked it, but that only made things worse.

Alonso was penalised for delaying Hamilton in the pits in exactly the same way that Giancarlo Fisichella was punished for delaying Sakon Yamamoto in the track. I have no complaint about that penalty (although the Spanish motorsport federation RFEA does).

McLaren was penalised for holding Hamilton for the original 20 seconds. But it was the additional 10 seconds delay that Alonso forced upon him that prevented Hamilton from making the cut.

McLaren could conceivably argue, at its forthcoming appeal hearing, that it wanted Hamilton to get his lap in as late as possible because he would be able to enjoy the track when it had the most rubber down and therefore was at the peak of its conditions. It’s interesting that the team’s punishment (loss of championship points) is reversible, but Alonso’s (losing five places on the grid) is not.

If McLaren weren’t trying to stop Hamilton from setting his final lap time, then I think they should be cleared at the appeal. If they truly were trying to treat their drivers as fairly as possible, even when both of their drivers had undermined that, then that should be applauded.

But if I do feel a modicum of sympathy for them, it’s tempered by the thought that they made a rod for their own backs by handling everything so badly, failing to explain everything honestly straight after qualifying, and refusing to share their radio communications with the television broadcast.

It’s also frustrating that the qualifying system has gotten so complicated that teams have to go to such ridiculous lengths in order to treat both its drivers fairly.

Forcing drivers to qualify with their race fuel loads, and the unnecessary complexity of giving them fuel credit laps and all the rest of it, put McLaren in an unenviable position.

The governing body should take note of the problems the over-complicated qualifying system has caused, drop the requirement that drivers have to qualify with their race fuel loads, and make qualifying transparent and meaningful again.

Photos: Daimler Chrysler

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