I was interested over the weekend to see that McLaren’s preview to the Chinese Grand Prix features team boss Martin Whitmarsh saying that the team’s start to the season has not met its expectations. So let’s look more deeply into it.
They have won one of the three races, but the wins have been shared out between them, Ferrari and Red Bull, which means that McLaren sits in second place behind Ferrari in the constructors’ table, while Jenson Button is fourth in a tight drivers’ championship race and Lewis Hamilton sixth.
Like Ferrari, another team which is coming back from a poor 2009 season, McLaren is clearly uneasy about the pace and all round ability of the Red Bull. The team has built on its form of the end of last year and has the edge on the others. After some poor reliability in the first two races, Red Bull heads to China, where it won last year, full of confidence.
McLaren has indicated that it understands how Red Bull is apparently able to run its car low in qualifying to gain vital extra downforce, and then still manage to run 160 kilos in the race without bottoming out and plans to bring its own system to China. The FIA has issued a statement, since Malaysia, saying that any system which altered the ride height of the car during post qualifying parc ferme would be illegal.
But it could be the key to this part of the season for McLaren. In the last dry qualifying session in Melbourne, Button was seven tenths of a second off the Red Bull, while Hamilton mysteriously failed to make the cut for the top ten. I was in front of his garage during practice three that day and all the vibes were that he was very happy with the car, didn’t want any changes making to it and felt he was in the hunt. But the speed wasn’t there in qualifying.
In both Bahrain and Melbourne, the Red Bull was the dominant car in qualifying, but the Ferrari was right with the Red Bull on pace – a tenth behind in Bahrain and 8/100ths behind in Melbourne. McLaren had a tenth or two in hand on Mercedes, but were well adrift of the leading two.
Qualifying is always important, but in the current F1, with no refuelling, it is said to be even more important. It’s certainly important to be near the front, as Rosberg showed in Malaysia, but pole is no guarantee of success in 2010. The winner of the three races so far this season has come from outside the front row; Alonso won from third in Bahrain, as did Vettel in Malaysia, while Button won from fourth in Melbourne. The reliability of Vettel’s Red Bull had quite a bit to do with that.
“By our own very high standards, we’ve not fully met our very high expectations in the first three races, despite having what we feel is the necessary race pace to compete at the front and despite having won the Australian Grand Prix,” said Whitmarsh.
“That might sound overly self-critical, given that we are second in the Constructors’ Championship, and given that Jenson and Lewis are both close to the top of the drivers’ championship, but that’s merely a reflection of the fact that we at McLaren aim to excel at all times. It’s our desire to improve and to eliminate mistakes from the operation that will make us stronger championship contenders.”
The mistakes are open to debate. Hamilton and Button were held back in Malaysia by the mistake in qualifying, which saw them trying to get through when the track was at its wettest. But it mustn’t be forgotten that Mark Webber was out at the same time and he made it though. Then there is the call to pit Hamilton for a second set of tyres in Melbourne, which lost him track position and which he described as a big mistake.
The good news is that both drivers love driving the car and feel that they can really express themselves with it. Hamilton’s charges through the field in Melbourne and Sepang have been the highlights of the year so far.
I’m doing a teleconference with McLaren’s engineering chief Paddy Lowe tomorrow so it will be interesting to see what he has to say about the steps McLaren are taking to make sure they can compete at this stage of the season.