Any sympathy for McLaren?

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.

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35 comments on Any sympathy for McLaren?

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  1. Nathan Jones said on 6th August 2007, 11:28

    isnt the FIA trying to make F1 a “green” formula? yet they have to drive around and deliberately “burn fuel”? go figure…………
    qualifying is (or should be) about speed alone!
    isnt that what set Senna apart from the rest in this area?
    i say, bring back the old 12-lap system
    it may be dull at the start but sure as anything, it’s thrilling at the end

  2. I have no sympathy for McLaren but have some for the drivers. The team put themselves in the position they are in now. The team totally mismanages their 2 star drivers. They expected to have a champion and a rookie. Now they have champion and rookie leading the championship and no idea how to handle it. We should not blame the rules of qualifying for they did …

  3. Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 6th August 2007, 12:13

    Milos, I couldn’t disagree with you more.

    The team are trying to give equal status to their drivers, in spite of the fact that one is a champion and one is a rookie. That is highly commendable.

    The rules of qualifying have boxed them into a silly situation where they have to give one driver an extra lap one weekend, and swap it around at the next meeting, in order to be fair to both of them.

    That’s why I have some sympathy for them. I fully believe they’re trying to give equal treatment to their drivers – but the rules make in unnecessarily difficult.

  4. Robert McKay said on 6th August 2007, 12:17

    What do the other teams do with respect to giving one driver an extra lap? Do they alternate it?

  5. Cooperman said on 6th August 2007, 12:38

    I feel very sorry for Dennis and McLaren. In working hard to ensure parity between their drivers, one or both of them has seen fit to “push the envelope” and take advantage of this – which is ironic at best because both have complained loudly this season of not being given a fair shot at the championship.

    What’s more ironic is that Schumacher’s been the blatant #1 for years – now McLaren are penalised for ensuring equal resources.

    If I were Dennis I’d let the two sides of the garage just fight it out and leave them to it. Don’t waste effort making them feel equal.

  6. I don’t know, maybe only McLaren’s quali strategy is optimal, so it enable one of their driver the extra lap?

  7. I think that if we are going to change qualifying then it shouldn’t be back to the old 12 lap format. The current system works well as far as I can tell except the fuel burn part.

    Have the top 10 declare their race start fuel before the third session starts and then have them go out on the bare minimum like before. It gives the good mixup of locked fuel and yet makes the final part not need a fuel burn and not need any of these problems.

  8. Sigh, I agree with Cooperman, I feel very sorry for Dennis and McLaren.

    Also I agree with Keith: The team are trying to give equal status to their drivers, in spite of the fact that one is a champion and one is a rookie. That is highly commendable.

    Yet FA still feels mistreated, because he wants to be #1. BTW Irionicly, now Ferrari fans jump on McLaren, claiming they use team orders.

  9. Journeyer said on 6th August 2007, 13:09

    Cooperman, I agree with you, except on one thing: McLaren weren’t penalized for assuring equal resources. They were penalized for seemingly favoring one driver over another. Had they assured equal resources, they’d have never been penalized.

  10. I feel sorry for Ron – no matter what he does, he will be criticised and castigated for it by one sector of opinion or another. Norbert Haug has said that he is for the team withdrawing their appeal and I cannot help but feel that he is right – McLaren can only expect an increased penalty from a system that looks unkindly upon any questioning of its decisions.

    This ridiculous incident has not only highlighted the idiocy of the present qualifying system (that is very easy to fix – go back to an hour for qualifying, unlimited laps and fuel, race tires and tough if the first three quarters of an hour are a bit hard on the TV viewers – we’ll get over it); it also demonstrates very clearly (yet again) how stupid the team orders rule is.

    How are team orders defined and who decides that definition? Any rule that is interpreted in one way at one circuit and another at the next is obviously bad – it leaves the teams in a fog of guessing at what is acceptable and what isn’t. At Monaco Ron was slated for treating his drivers unfairly, now he is penalised for trying to be scrupulously fair. The fact is we know perfectly well that, if any team boss is completely even-handed with his drivers, it is Ron, yet this moronic team orders rule is used again and again in attempts to pillory his team.

    Get rid of it. The FIA has no business interfering in how a team chooses to run its drivers. And I stand by that even if it means we will occasionally see second drivers ordered to move over and let their team leaders through. It’s the team’s business and, if they want to make themselves unpopular with the masses by such tactics, that’s up to them. We need no rule to regulate that; in fact, no rule can fairly deal with it since it is always a matter of interpretation and personal opinion.

  11. Journeyer said on 6th August 2007, 13:27

    I agree, Clive: scrap the team orders rule. There wasn’t any from 1950-2003. And the teams skirt it anyway. Why bother?

    But again, Ron wasn’t penalized for being too fair. He was penalized for letting the situation get out of his control, that’s why there was the perception of favoring one driver over another. Had they been able to control it, no penalty would’ve occurred.

  12. Effectively, Ron was penalised for trying to be fair. The whole situation arose because one of his drivers decided to break an agreement that ensured fairness between the drivers. That agreement was necessary because of the present qualifying system.

    So is the FIA now going to penalise teams that fail to prevent squabbles between their drivers? And where does that end? Politburo lieutenants inserted into each team to make sure that everyone toes the line? It’s a load of BS, Journeyer, and the FIA should not be involved in it at all.

    The FIA go on and on about “bringing the sport into disrepute”, yet history tells us that the worst offender in that regard is the FIA itself. Ask anyone what they think about F1 and a part of their answer will be mockery of the constant idiotic disputes and lawsuits that have become endemic in the sport, all of which are the result of a governing body that has made the rules so complex and open to interpretation that logical and fair decisions are almost impossible. The FIA is widely detested for its questionable rulings and what appears to be a systematic favouring of one team (even Bernie has admitted that there is only one team that consistently receives support from the FIA).

    If we are about to stand in judgement over whether a team is “controlling” its drivers adequately or not, I would say that the FIA and its stewards are the least qualified of all to make any sort of ruling in the matter.

    Sorry to get a bit heated but this is all so unnecessary.

  13. Dennis at McClaren has been fair both cars should let both car team`s run their indivual stratergies,
    one world champion and one rookei I do not subscibe to that as one being better than the other, hamilton served avery good apprentiship with Mcclaren and the best of luck to him learning it so well.
    other Teams such as Ferrari have had aggressive drivers and tactics, so why do they try to besmirch others.
    Is it the gentlemans sport it used to be ? Money spoils everything (ie football)and Bernie.
    Let Damon hill and David Coultard`s examples show what sportsmen can be.
    Jon Crane

  14. The rules of qualifying are same for everybody. They may not be perfect but that is what we have… If everybody else can cope, why McLaren can’t? We would have to sympathy for all the teams …

    Whatever McLaren is trying to do to please the drivers is not working. The drivers do not feel they have equal opportunities. Neither of them feels that. Would Hamilton do what he did if he did not have Monaco in his mind? Were the drivers given equal chance there? Would Alonso revenge it the way he did if he felt at home in the team and Hamilton were his buddy as the TV commercial suggests? That to me means that the way the team is handling them is not working, whoever is in charge of the drivers does not do a right job at the moment. If they can’t fix it they can say good bye to one of the drivers soon

    My champion and rookie remark – what I meant is, that Dennis probably did not expect to have this situation on hands this season when he signed up Alonso and then gave the other seat to Hamilton. So it looks to me that they were not prepared for this situation and what we see is the consequence. And here I can have some sympathy for Dennis …

  15. Actually, Milos, I do have sympathy for all the teams, having to function in such a silly qualifying system. The point is more that McLaren have been managing the qualifying sessions better than anyone else, to the point where they are able to offer one of their drivers a slight advantage through burning off a little extra fuel (how ridiculous is it that the rules create a situation in which squandering fuel becomes an advantage?). We could say that this micro-management of strategy has not worked in that it causes disputes between the drivers but that is hardly a matter for the FIA to involve themselves in.

    The drivers are well aware that they are being given equal opportunities; their beef is that each of them feels that they should be getting more support than the other guy. Yet, if McLaren were to favour one over another, you can bet that there would soon be howls of protest from one side or the other and the FIA would come trundling along to interfere.

    It is a no-win situation for Ron. He manages things fairly and everyone says he has made a mess of things; he decides to put one driver ahead of the other and he is accused of favouritism. Why can we not understand that it’s none of our business? Ron’s job it to ensure that McLaren wins GPs and how he manages his team to achieve that end is up to him, not us or the FIA. We can comment on his policies but we should not have the right to intervene and start handing out penalties and nor should the FIA.

    You may be right that one or other of the McLaren drivers will go to another team next year, Milos. But that will not be thanks to Ron Dennis’ handling of the team; it will be the result of two drivers being unable to accept fair treatment and instead insisting that they be number one. And that is how it should be – every F1 driver should feel that he is the best and, if only he were given the right equipment, he would prove it. The problem is that each of them also will also happily accept whatever advantage he is given over a team mate. These are huge egos we are talking here…

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