x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

First without the fastest car

First and second in the championship with a car that is, perhaps, only third-fastest of its generation, but that is the situation at McLaren-Mercedes.

McLaren drivers Lewis Hamilton, foreground, and Jenson Button lead the drivers' standings.
McLaren drivers Lewis Hamilton, foreground, and Jenson Button lead the drivers' standings.

First and second in the championship with a car that is, perhaps, only third-fastest of its generation. Exercises in damage limitation are rarely this successful, but that is the situation at McLaren-Mercedes as the 2010 Formula One season enters its second phase with Red Bull-Racing and Ferrari looking up at the English team in the drivers table. At the dawn of the campaign, many sat back and waited for the relationship between Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button to implode, but the two drivers have rubbed along well from the start.

McLaren's collective team spirit was at its most apparent during the British Grand Prix last week at Silverstone, when the cars had to be stripped down and rebuilt overnight after a new exhaust-blown diffuser caused problems on the opening day. "That was a bit of a low point," said Martin Whitmarsh, the team principal. "If someone had offered me second and fourth places in the race at that point, I'd have wrenched their arm from its socket.

"We took some risks by rushing through the new parts, but we were strong and decisive enough to back out of that. I think the result reflects that we did the right thing. I'm sure our predicament caused mirth elsewhere in the pit lane, but sometimes you have to do these things to move forwards." A modified version of the diffuser is due to be refitted before the next race, July 25, in Germany. From third on the grid, it was no surprise that Hamilton would be a factor at Silverstone, hassling winner Mark Webber's Red Bull for a couple of laps before taking a safe second. But the speed of Button's rise from 14th to fourth was less expected.

"When you look at the weekend we had, both drivers did a fantastic job," Whitmarsh said. "If you turn up at a circuit with the quickest car and win the race, it's an obvious way to secure the title. Often, though, championships are won quietly, with fantastic individual performances. "It's a great effort to leave Silverstone with our drivers first and second in the standings and the team leading the constructors' championship, because we haven't had the quickest car."

Since receiving a major aerodynamic upgrade in Valencia, two races ago, Ferrari's F10 has been at least a match for the McLaren, but misfortune and misjudgements have stifled the team's podium prospects. Red Bull's RB6 has been the class of the field at every circuit, bar Montreal, but points have been frittered away because of technical problems, earlier in the season, and the increasingly intense competition between Webber and teammate Sebastian Vettel.

"Our guys work really well together," Whitmarsh said. Each wants to beat the other, but that's the right level of rivalry. We're extraordinarily lucky to have two great team players. I've read lots of comments about smoke and mirrors at McLaren, but I think there's rather more of that elsewhere." @Email:sports@thenational.ae