The irony of McLaren’s season was that the team’s reliability won Lewis Hamilton the drivers’ championship, but their drivers’ inconsistency cost them the constructors’ championship.
That’s putting it rather glibly: Hamilton wouldn’t have been champion without drives like his Silverstone master class. But the points he threw away in races like Bahrain and Montreal could have helped McLaren beat Ferrari to the teams’ title.
The ‘even years’ haven’t gone well for McLaren of late: 2002 was a write-off, the team grabbing a sole victory at Monaco; 2004 was lost to chronic unreliability; in 2006 they had reliability but too little pace.
In 2008 they broke that cycle and they did it coming off the back of a hellish 2007. The shock waves from the ‘spygate’ bombshell reverberated into the winter, and it was only a few weeks before the season began that the MP4/23 was given the all-clear to compete. Even then, McLaren had to agree not to develop several technologies the FIA felt might have been inspired by Ferraris designs.
After that, seeing Lewis Hamilton stick the new car on pole position at the first race and drive straight to the chequered flag with little disruption was the shot in the arm the team needed,
Ferrari gave them a reality check in the following races with a string of wins. When the conditions were clear and predictable, McLaren couldn’t stop their rivals. But when the track was wet, unseasonably cool or, as at Montreal, crumbling, McLaren and Hamilton seized the initiative. If the F2008’s strength was its sheer speed in ideal conditions, the MP4/23s greatest weapon was its adaptability.
The MP4/23 was also impressively reliable – at least, Lewis Hamilton’s was. Heikki Kovalainen had three race-ending car failures, two of them engine-related, the third the wheel breakage that caused his nasty crash at Barcelona. Despite the speed and angle of the impact, a deep tyre wall and strong nose assembly protected the driver.
On more than one occasion a head-slapping blunder from Hamilton presented his rivals with gift-wrapped points.
And the team joined in, with some questionable strategic calls, though nothing as destructive of last year’s cock-up at Shanghai. They failed to pit Hamilton during a safety car period at Hockenheim, and poor tyre choice during qualifying at Monza left him stuck in the midfield. At Interlagos, the team seemed to go over-cautious, leaving Hamilton nursing a heavy fuel load yet having to pit directly after Massa’s stops in order not to be compromised by the safety car – the worst of both worlds. But events proved McLaren’s much-maligned decision to not use Hamilton’s engine ‘joker’ (allowing one penalty-free engine change) as a tactic was justified.
McLaren fought a development race with Ferrari at the end of the season while the likes of BMW were concentrating on next year’s car. They spent £4m on developments for Interlagos alone.
Did McLaren divert too much of their resources from its 2009 campaign? We will know the answer to that in a few months. But refining one F1 car while creating another from scratch – to a radically different set of rules – is exactly the sort of challenge the McLaren Technology Centre was created for. On the night after Hamilton’s reception party, engineers were putting new parts in the wind tunnel…