With the first four ‘flyaway’ grands prix out of the way, it’s a good time to assess the start each team has made to the season and look at how each team has fared with the new hybrid turbo technology so far.
Over the next week or so, we will look in detail and what’s gone well and what hasn’t, and assess the outlook for the season.
To start with, a team that began the season well but has been a bit of an enigma ever since.
Best result: P2 Australia (Magnussen)
Best grid slot: 4th (Magnussen, Australia)
Average grid slot: 9th.
Constructors Championship: 5th
Drivers’ Championship: P8 Button, 23pts; P9 Magnussen 20pts
Fastest race lap, gap to pace setter
What’s gone right?
Strong start to the season in Australia with both cars on podium after Daniel Ricciardo’s disqualification from second place. However on returning to the factory in Woking the team was told by chairman Ron Dennis that if anyone in the team was happy with that result they should “leave McLaren straight away, as the team exists to win”.
Outstanding debut for Kevin Magnussen, who also qualified strongly in the wet conditions. The team scored 33 points at the first race, but only 10 points in the three races that have followed.
The car went well in Bahrain, with Button heading for fifth place before clutch problems intervened.
Eric Boullier has settled into his new role as Racing Director and looks an asset to the team, with a strong racers’s instinct and a good understanding of the F1 environment. He’s yet to really make his presence felt internally, however, as he has been learning the McLaren ropes first.
What’s gone wrong?
The 1/2 a second per lap from the upgrade in Malaysia, which Ron Dennis had targeted, did not materialise and the team was forced to open up bodywork to cope with cooling demands in the hot conditions and this hurt the aerodynamics.
Two double non-scores in Bahrain and China have poured cold water on the early season optimism. In Malaysia the car did not work well in high track temperatures, although Button did well to take sixth place and they also had some sensor problems which cost time. Clutch problems hit both cars in Bahrain and this was followed by a poor weekend in China, where the limitations of the front end of the car were clear. Button qualified 12th and Magnussen only 15th.
Although China was cold, which should have suited them, the McLarens didn’t have any pace and were the slowest of the Mercedes-engined cars.
After a stellar debut, Magnussen has been doing some hard yards since. He already has points on his licence after getting involved in a start line clash with Raikkonen in Malaysia, which also bagged him an in-race penalty and wrecked his race, dropping him to ninth at the end.
Strong points of the team and car
McLaren has benefited from having a Mercedes power unit in the early races, as rivals Renault and Ferrari started the season behind the German manufacturer on performance and fuel economy.
Weak points of the team and car
In China a lack of front tyre temperature and graining was the big issue for McLaren. The drivers very clearly spelled out that the car does not have enough overall downforce and is very front limited, which means that on front-limited tracks such as China and also Barcelona to some extent they will suffer unless they can address the problem quickly.
They pioneered a curious looking ‘bodied’ rear suspension design (above), but it’s not clear whether this has given them the rear end downforce that every team is looking for under the 2014 rules, now that smaller rear wings and the lack of blown diffusers have made the rear of the cars more unstable. The cost in terms of drag appears quite high.
Where do they go from here?
After the disaster of 2013 McLaren cannot afford another ‘lost year’. The faults with the car can be addressed and for the foreseeable future the Mercedes engine will give them a solid platform. But the others will catch up if they don’t push hard and develop the chassis.
Around June/July things will get complicated as the technical team has to continue to develop the 2014 car around the Mercedes at the same time as optimising the design for the new 2015 car around the Honda engine. This is a formidable undertaking and they cannot afford to mess up the 2015 car through lack of focus and effort, with such an important new partner coming on board.
To complicate the task, new FIA Sporting Regulations for 2014 say that the team can use no more than 30 hours of wind tunnel and CFD time combined. The risk of falling behind is obvious.
McLaren is a well-resourced team, despite not having a title sponsor at this point. Ron Dennis has been pushing very hard to conclude a deal with a large company, which could be Chinese giant Huawei, but has not got it across the line yet.
Team boss Eric Boullier said on Wednesday that the team is confident it will challenge for wins as the season goes on.
“We have to believe we will win a race,” he said. “What is going on here in Woking is very positive and I think we will be able to keep pushing and bring very aggressive and strong development for the course of the season.
“And I think we will put ourselves in a position, maybe not in the first part of the season but maybe later, to fight for a win. I hope so.”
Overall Marks out of 10
McLaren – 6/10
Jenson Button – 6/10
Kevin Magnussen – 5.5/10
How many marks out of 10 do you give McLaren so far? Leave us your comments on this post in the comments section below.