Jenson Button, McLaren, Suzuka, 2011

McLaren are runners-up again after troubled start to 2011

2011 F1 season reviewPosted on | Author Keith Collantine

Jenson Button, McLaren, Suzuka, 2011
Button scored his third win of the year at Suzuka

McLaren got their 2011 campaign off to a dreadful start as the MP4-26 had a troubled gestation.

But by the start of the season they had improved enough to be Red Bull’s closest challengers.

They ended the season as runners-up in the constructors’ championship for the seventh time since they last won it in 1998.

McLaren’s elaborate ‘octopus’ exhaust system was at the root of the car’s troubles in testing. It was hurriedly discarded and replaced with a more conventional set-up in time for the first race in Melbourne.

It boded well for the team that Lewis Hamilton was able to finish second despite the 11th-hour changes to the car. When he won third time out in China, the team had realistic hopes of challenging Red Bull over the season.

McLaren team stats 2011

Best race result (number) 1st (6)
Best grid position (number) 1st (1)
Non-finishes (mechanical/other) 5 (3/2)
Laps completed (% of total) 2,108 (93.03%)
Laps led (% of total) 238 (21.01%)
Championship position (2010) 2nd (2nd)
Championship points (2010) 497 (454)
Pit stop performance ranking 3

It didn’t work out that way. Too often in the first half of the season they were frustrated by an inability to out-qualify Red Bull on Saturday or out-manouevre them on Sunday. This cost them potential wins at a time when the MP4-26 was arguably the faster car over a race stint.

Questionable strategic decisions, particularly on Hamilton’s side of the garage, compromised them further: failing to set a lap early in qualifying at Monaco, or putting on intermediate tyres in Hungary – though it must be said that Hamilton himself could and should have overruled these calls.

Hamilton also struggled to adapt his hard-charging style to the demands of less durable tyres. “I can’t go any slower,” he memorably told his team over the radio during the European Grand Prix.

Lewis Hamilton, Mark Webber, Montreal, 2011
Hamilton had several collisions, including this one with Webber

On top of that, Hamilton found himself embroiled in a series of needless clashes with rivals, in which he was more often than not the guilty party. He collided with Felipe Massa alone in Monaco, Singapore, Japan and India.

Added to that were further mishaps in Canada, Monaco, Hungary and Belgium with other drivers. But on his day Hamilton’s driving was top-notch as ever – whether he was chasing down and passing Sebastian Vettel to win in China, taking on Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber for victory at the Nurburgring, or breaking Red Bull’s pole position monopoly in Korea.

Without his litany of mistakes Hamilton could have been second in the championship, but it’s unrealistic to suggest he might have beaten Vettel with the equipment he had at his disposal.

Instead it was Jenson Button who ended the year runner-up to Vettel, with as many wins as Hamilton but twice as many podium finishes.

Button gave away less to Hamilton in qualifying than he had last year and was often more than a match for his team mate in the races. A virtuoso drive in Canada produced his first win of the year. He added another wet weather win in Hungary where, as in China last year, he avoided changing tyres while Hamilton headed for the pits.

The change of tyre supplier over the winter clearly played into Button’s hands. On several occasions he was able to make one fewer pit stop than Hamilton which usually worked to his advantage.

McLaren face the same problem as the rest of Red Bull’s rivals in trying to build a car that’s as quick as the RB7. But they have also identified areas to improve on the operational side, and here the recruitment of Sam Michael from Williams may pay dividends.

Lewis Hamilton, McLaren, Jerez, 2011
Testing revealed acute problems with the MP4-26

Errors such as giving Hamilton too little fuel in qualifying in Singapore, or too little time to set a flying lap in Q3 in Japan, or allowing Button to miss Q3 in Belgium, amounted to needless squandering of their potential.

The team has already shown signs of progress. Having been forced to retire Button after a pit stop error in Britain, McLaren were the quickest team in the pits in the final two races.

Six wins and second place in the championship is a lot better than the team might have expected back in February. But getting on terms with the champions will take more than just building a faster car.

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Images ?? McLaren, Red Bull/Getty images, Pirelli