Those of you who’ve been following these team previews will have noticed that I skipped McLaren when they should have been the first team I wrote about.
As I’m sure you’ve guessed the reason I left them to last is that there’s so much going on with the team I needed more time to gather my thoughts before writing about them. After the trauma of 2007, McLaren need to bounce back this year.
Consequences of ‘spygate’
How badly will the after-effects of the spying scandal affect the team in 2008?
On a purely technical level they have had to suspend research in three areas the FIA claimed were influenced by Mike Coughlan’s possession of Ferrari information. That alone may compromise the new car’s performance, although Martin Whitmarsh has denied it will:
We do not believe that we are handicapped by that. We are in there with equal opportunity with the other teams to hopefully develop a competitive car, and to compete and win races.
The fine (which, after the deduction of prize money, amounted to around half of the original hundred million dollar figure) will have less of an impact.
The consequences for the team as a whole are harder to determine. Team boss Ron Dennis is widely tipped to leave in the coming weeks and even though this is something he has planned for a long time (with Martin Whitmarsh set to take over) it will still have a destabilising effect.
And the ongoing investigation could have any number of outcomes. The inconvenience of searches of their premises, summonses to answer legal enquiries and other requirements could compromise the team’s focus.
Will the SECU give them an advantage?
Going into winter testing several teams were grumbling about the fact that a McLaren-owned company had produced the standard electronic control units (SECUs) that must be used by all teams this year. But Red Bull’s Christian Horner said he expected any advantage the team might have would only be short-term:
I think initially obviously McLaren should have an advantage because it’s a system that they’ve potentially grown up with. But our engine partner Renault are getting on top of the issues quite quickly. They’ve made very good progress during the Christmas break.
McLaren’s Paddy Lowe unsurprisingly stressed the differences between the unit McLaren used last year and the SECU:
MES is a separate company, They’ve been very strict at honouring the contractual requirements. There was a complete separation between them and us; there came point where we severed links in software development. Thus, the software is not common between the 2007 McLaren ECU and the new control version. They own and develop that code and it’s the same for everyone, everyone can see it. It’s not a black box code, every team gets to see the code so they can see how it works. It’s open source.
How quick is the MP4/23?
In 2007 Ferrari and McLaren produced cars with strengths in different areas. This year their designs appear to be converging – Ferrari, who had a long wheelbase car, have shortened it, while McLaren have extended their short wheelbase MP4/22.
Among the design innovations are a different style of roll hoop with much less bodywork around it than other cars, the intention being to improve the airflow to the rear wing. Elsewhere McLaren have added their own versions of modern trends, including front and rear wheel shrouds.
The team might also be relieved to hear Bridgestone are making changes to their super-soft tyre compounds as they have been having trouble with rear tyre wear. However the tyre only makes a few appearances during the year and will first be seen at Monte-Carlo.
Tyre wear is the biggest concern for the team as they appear to have Ferrari pegged on single-lap pace but lose around two tenths of a second per lap over a stint.
It will be fascinating to see which of their drivers handles the problem better, as Lewis Hamilton was even tougher on his tyres than Fernando Alonso last year.
Can Heikki Kovalainen challenge Lewis Hamilton?
After Fernando Alonso’s persistent allegations against the team last year some people are insisting that Heikki Kovalainen will not be allowed to compete with Lewis Hamilton. From the moment Kovalainen joined the team he, Hamilton and the team have said McLaren’s years-old policy of giving both drivers equal equipment and opportunities will continue, despite the obvious problems it caused them last year.
Shortly after becoming a McLaren driver Kovalainen said:
I wanted to establish before signing was that I’d be treated equally. I think we can fight on the track as much as we can but off the track we can laugh about it. I think in the past McLaren have treated drivers equally – including this year. I don’t think it will be a problem at all. We won’t have any problems – I think we can help the team go forward.
He said pretty much the same thing at the launch of the MP4/23 in January, as did Pedro de la Rosa, who even said he didn’t agree with it. Hamilton added:
I don’t believe that I am starting as the first driver. As Heikki said earlier, we expect to have the exact same opportunity and I believe that is what we are going to be given. For sure, as team mates we are going to push to beat each other and push each other forward. We both want to win the world championship at the end of the day.
Early in testing Kovalainen seemed the quicker of the two drivers which prompted more questions from the press about whether he could challenge for the championship. Again he answered:
My goal is to win the world championship. I believe I can beat Lewis. The team guarantees me the same car, so I have a chance. I just need to make it work.
And he said the same again just six days ago. As ever the team will be watched very closely for any sign of inequality between the two. Kovalainen certainly has had enough of a chance to get acquainted with the car – he’s done 18 days of testing in the off-season to Hamilton’s 15.
What can we expect from Lewis Hamilton?
After his startling d?ā?®but last year, what can we expect from Lewis Hamilton in 2008?
The man on the street might take it for granted that, having come so close to winning the championship on his first attempt, it’s inevitable Hamilton will be champion this year. But as we hardened F1 fans know it doesn’t work that way at all, and if the MP4/23’s a dog Hamilton will be lucky if he sees the podium.
In testing McLaren have been the only team to get anywhere near Ferrari, at least over a single lap, so Hamilton should at the very least be fighting for wins this year.
His two most significant weaknesses last year came in judging which tyres to use in wet conditions and failing to rein in his urge to overtake when he didn’t need to in the later races. I’d bet he has the former sorted this year, but may struggle with the latter.
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