x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Formula One: Changes for the worse at McLaren-Mercedes

McLaren, having won the last two races of 2012, were expected to start the season with a bang. Instead, their car is shamefully off the pace.

McLaren’s experienced technical crew have made elementary errors like fitting the suspension back-to-front in preseason, and are now playing catch-up now. Paul Gilham / Getty Images
McLaren’s experienced technical crew have made elementary errors like fitting the suspension back-to-front in preseason, and are now playing catch-up now. Paul Gilham / Getty Images

It was the kind of human error that would have sparked ridicule had it been made by a team toward the poorer, less-popular end of the paddock.

McLaren-Mercedes, the illustrious British marque that boasts eight constructors' championships, appeared to have the standout, quickest car at the first test of pre-season, yet confirmed last week the reason behind it was that a suspension component had been fitted incorrectly. It had been fitted, in fact, back-to-front.

Were it not so incredible, it would be funny.

After all, this is no embryonic backmarker learning on its feet. It is a team celebrating its 50-year anniversary; a team that has started 724 races and taken 182 victories; a team in which drivers over the years have won more than 5,000 points and that engineers have helped claim 4,712.5 in the chase for the constructors' title. It is what those who speak in sporting terms call "a top team".

And yet such a calamity is not altogether surprising. As much as McLaren were renowned in the 1980s for their success on track, they have of late developed a reputation for shooting themselves in their steely toed feet. Be it botched pit-stops or strategic mistakes, McLaren have oftentimes been their own worst enemy.

The past five months prove a prime example. The marque, based in the English town of Woking, won seven races in 2012, but most crucially, they claimed victories at the final two races of the season in the United States and Brazil.

With limited rule changes being implemented ahead of this season, the majority of the 11 teams opted for evolution over revolution and McLaren should, as a result, have been well placed to push for a podium at the opener in Australia.

Instead, team principal Martin Whitmarsh and his staff decided to overhaul the winning car and gift themselves a machine crippled with problems: substantial under-steer, lack of balance and serious issues with the ride height.

In Melbourne last week, drivers Jenson Button finished ninth and Sergio Perez, on his debut for his new team, placed 11th.

Neither is openly admitting anxiety, however, and both accept expectations have lowered considerably going into tomorrow's Malaysian Grand Prix. Perez, as expected from a young driver still bedding in with new employers, is remaining spirited.

"I don't regret anything at all," said Perez, who joined in the off-season after impressing with Sauber. "If they would have told me I would be in this position, I would still have definitely signed because, for me, McLaren is the best team.

"I prefer 100 times to be in this position, but with McLaren, than with any other team and winning. I'm enjoying my time here a lot. It's a great team and I know we have great people to come out of these difficulties."

It is a phrase often relayed: McLaren shine when the chips are down. Only, the chips appear to be down all too often. The British outfit have produced a drivers' champion just once this decade and are without a constructors' title since 1998. Such statistics do not sit comfortably with the term "top team".

"It's not great," said Button, who joined McLaren in 2010 after winning the world championship with Brawn-GP the previous year. "The last four years I've been racing in F1, I've had good cars, but you will always have tough times and even with a top team that happens.

"If I was at a smaller team and we were in this position, I would be worried, but because it is McLaren, I know we can develop a car that will really work for us."

Logic would suggest the team could simply revert to last year's model, but it is a route Whitmarsh and company are keen to avoid. The team principal has already conceded staff have been pulled off McLaren's 2014 car and reassigned to this year's model; he is unlikely to accept next year's car being further affected because the team are working on last year's machine.

That is not to say wholesale changes are not planned. A major upgrade is in the pipeline ahead of the fifth race of the season in Barcelona, and Sam Michael, the team's sporting director, already tellingly refers to the MP4-28 as "the MP4-28a".

"We have to focus on development and what we can do with direction," Button said. "That's the most important thing. This weekend, we are not going to be winning grands prix; it's not going to suddenly come good. So it's about developing as quick as we can, and that's what we are very good at. That's what we need to concentrate on."

Perez told The National he is convinced the team can turn things around and become competitive as quickly as possible. And, he added, if that means reverting to the 2012 car, he is ready to do so.

"The car has potential and McLaren know how to come back, so we will try everything to be back in contention," said Perez, 23. "We have to try to understand everything to get the maximum out of the car, but we want to win this year and we will do anything in our hands to get back to winning.

"If last year's car will make us more competitive, then it will be an option. At the moment, though, all our efforts are on this year's car to make it the best on the grid."

Ironically, for a race that usually sees teams seeking respite from either the baking heat or the monsoon rain, tomorrow could provide McLaren with respite from their own despondency. The capricious weather at Sepang can turn the form book to soggy pulp as team strategies get shuffled and human errors increase.

And this time, McLaren are keen to benefit from such occurrences.

"If we have normal conditions, we will struggle just to score points, but in tricky conditions, we can get a good podium or even win the race," said Perez, who claimed his first F1 podium amid a tropical storm at Sepang last year.

"We know conditions in Malaysia. It can rain at anytime. Anything can happen."

At McLaren, where a car can go from hot to not in the twist of a suspension component, "anything can happen" is a phrase known only too well.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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