Why do McLaren blow hot and cold?

McLaren won ten races in 2005, then nothing in 2006

McLaren won ten races in 2005, then nothing in 2006

After a pole position and a win in his first two British Grands Prix, Lewis Hamilton goes into this year’s race knowing he’ll be lucky to score points.

At the sharp end of F1, teams come and teams go. But of late no team has oscillated between being championship-challengers and also-rans with the same unpredictability as McLaren.

This decade we’ve seen the decline of Williams, the rise and fall of Renault, and Ferrari generally competitive apart from a blip in 2005. But McLaren have often been racing for wins one year, struggling the next, and then swapping round again. Why can’t one of F1’s best-resourced teams manage better consistency?

A glance at McLaren’s win record in recent seasons illustrates their strange form:

McLaren wins, 2002-2009 (click to enlarge)

McLaren wins, 2002-2009 (click to enlarge)

In 2004 only an inspired performance by Kimi Raikkonen at Spa – in a heavily revised MP4-19 – prevented McLaren from spending the season winless. That set them up for an excellent 2005 where they won ten times and were in the running for both championships.

The following season the MP4-21 failed to to win a race. Then in 2007 they were competitive again: Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso scored more points in the MP4-22 than any other car managed (but the team’s spygate penalty meant no constructors’ championship).

Last year’s car finally delivered their first title in nine years, but once again things have gone pear-shaped. McLaren have failed to master the new rules for 2009 and so poor are the MP4-24’s aerodynamic properties that the car was slowest of all through the ultra-quick turn eight at Istanbul. That does not bode well for their performance at Silverstone, which has plenty of quick corners.

Designers

Unusually, McLaren rotate the responsibility for producing their cars between two designers. Pat Fry was chief engineer on this year’s car, as he was on the 2007 MP4-22. Tim Goss was the man behind last year’s car.

That has been the case since the last car designed by Adrian Newey – the 2006 MP4-21 – before the superstar designer left to join Red Bull (whose cars have, unsurprisingly, begun to share certain characteristics with past McLarens since then).

Newey famously pursued an ultra-radical design for 2003, the MP4-18, which failed to pass crash tests and never raced. That gestated into the MP4-19 – hich was an unmitigated disaster, at least until they corrected its worst flaws with the MP4-19B. Subsequent McLarens expanded on that concept, often with success, but the massive overhaul of the rules this year forced meant an evolution of previous models was not possible.

Although this explains some of their difficulties, it’s still not a good explanation for why they’ve got it so badly wrong in specific years. With the McLaren Technology Centre they have resources the equal of, and more often better than, every team on the grid. Their car simulation and tyre modelling facilities are especially renowned – and the latter should have been an absolute boon as F1 switched from grooves to slicks over the winter.

Driver line-up

From 1996 to 2001, McLaren enjoyed stability in their driver line-up with the increasingly experienced duo of Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard. Since then they’ve not been able to hit that balance of experience and consistency, losing several top drivers to rival teams (Kimi Raikkonen, Fernando Alonso) or championships (Juan Pablo Montoya):

2002-2004: David Coulthard, Kimi Raikkonen
2005: Kimi Raikkonen, Juan Pablo Montoya, Pedro de la Rosa, Alexander Wurz
2006: Kimi Raikkonen, Juan Pablo Montoya, Pedro de la Rosa
2007: Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton
2008-2009: Lewis Hamilton, Heikki Kovalainen

Although they seem happy with Hamilton, who has a five-year contract with the team, Kovalainen’s deal only runs to the end of the season, and once again there are rumours that McLaren are looking for a replacement. But as long as their car’s in the doldrums, maintaining consistency in their driver line-up might be a smarter move.

Focus of resources

One explanation for their lack of form this year is that the effort put into ensuring a championship victory last year diverted resources from the 2009 effort. It’s no coincidence that two of the other teams who were concentrating especially hard on development at the end of 2008 – Ferrari and Renault – also started 2009 poorly.

Have McLaren fallen victim to a similar phenomenon on past occasions? Did their championship effort in 2005 detract from their 2006 effort?

If so, we must also ask how they were able to perform so strongly from the beginning of 2008. On that occasion not only had they been preoccupied with the 2007 title fight, but the fall-out from ‘spy-gate’, after which they were forbidden from developing certain components.

Whatever Hamilton thinks the reasons for McLaren’s fluctuating form is, it will likely be much on his mind as he prepares for a drubbing on home ground this weekend.

For McLaren the onus is now on Martin Whitmarsh, following his appointment as Ron Dennis later this year, not only to navigate the team out of this latest slump, but also tackle why it keeps happening, and find long-term solutions to their problems. The question is how.

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