March 22, 2013

The downward spiral

Martin Whitmarsh and Sam Michael will be feeling the pressure at McLaren © Sutton Images

It should not surprise you to learn that when you get a group of F1 people together, the topic of conversation often turns to Formula One. In season and out, in the paddock and at local restaurants, F1 folk have something of a one-track mind.

This week, that track has been playing on an endless loop – no matter who you run into, all we’re asking each other is 'what on earth has happened to McLaren?'. The received wisdom (usually delivered with a sad smile) is that no F1 team is better at throwing away titles than the Woking racers. They’ve got top-notch facilities, excellent drivers, and hundreds of dedicated and talented staffers, but they’ve not taken home a constructors’ trophy this century.

But this season it’s even worse. Sure, after one unusually cold race it might be a bit early to start ordering the funeral wreaths for their title chances, but there’s nothing like a bit of doom and gloom to get the naysayers through a long flight to [insert destination here].

So as a fully paid-up member of the Formula One Doom and Gloom Society (patent pending), I’ve been doing my fair share of hand-wringing over McLaren. There’s a strongish argument for saying that it was the team who destroyed Lewis Hamilton’s chances at the 2012 WDC, what with a series of botched pit stops early in the season and then a catastrophic run of reliability issues in the closing stages, but at least they had a car capable of fighting the good fight.

This season? Not so much.

It turns out that the early pace we saw in Jerez was all down to the team putting the car’s suspension on back to front. That’s the kind of mistake that would have had HRT laughed out of the sport in their brief F1 career, but from a team currently celebrating their fiftieth anniversary? Ouch.

Then we saw signs of extreme desperation in Melbourne qualifying, when the pit wall decided to send both their drivers out on slicks when they would have been better off fitting them with gills. Sure, Jenson’s won more than a few races on the strength of his uncanny ability to pick the perfect tyre two laps before anyone else has even spotted that it might be a good idea to change compounds, but what we saw last week was panic, not strategy.

The thinking behind the 2013 car was that McLaren wanted to give themselves the maximum development potential over the course of the season, hence their decision to go revolution when everyone else was thinking evolution. But when your opponents are all starting at zero and you’re so far into the negative numbers that even a polar bear is feeling the chill? Development potential is irrelevant when you waste most of the season just playing catch-up.

So where did it all go wrong? The curse of Sam Michael is a popular theory – no one’s entirely sure just why Martin Whitmarsh headhunted a man whose track record is less than impressive, nor what it is that Michael is supposed to bring to the team. Last year’s great joke was that Williams ditched Michael and got good again, while McLaren recruited him and, well, we all know how well 2012 panned out for the team…

But I don’t think it’s fair to lay all the blame at Sam Michael’s feet. Instead, I have two pet theories of my own jostling for space.

First and foremost, I think that Whitmarsh is too damn amenable to be running McLaren. Victory demands hard-nosed bastards who inspire the right combination of fear and respect in their employees. Ron Dennis had it. Jean Todt had it. Whitmarsh? He gets the respect, but he doesn’t get the fear. A little fear is healthy. It motivates, it inspires, and it gets results.

In an off-the-record conversation with another team principal we discussed the Whitmarsh effect. While he accepted that my fear theory had some merits, he reminded me that Whitmarsh’s background is aerospace, not racing. He comes from the world of business, where decisions are often made by committee and blame shared. But F1 teams work best as benign dictatorships, where input is considered but orders obeyed without question. Responsibility is laid at the door of one man, and decisions are made quickly.

But my other theory? Whatever has been written about the loss of Lewis Hamilton – and make no mistake, the 2008 world champion would be an asset to any team – I think that McLaren have been suffering since they lost Pedro de la Rosa.

Yes, Pedro. Think about it – in the good old days, when McLaren turned up at testing with an absolute dog of a car, they were able to turn it into a race winner in pretty short order. McLaren were the undoubted kings of the development race. But since de la Rosa moved on, to Sauber, HRT, and now Ferrari?

Let’s be frank – they’re just no longer as good as they once were. Is it that teams like Red Bull have moved the goal posts, bringing along their own fabricators to races so that Adrian Newey’s beermat sketches can be made into a component by morning? Or is it that McLaren are lost without the input of one of the paddock’s most experienced (and most respected) development drivers?

It’s probably a combination of factors. Nothing in life is ever simple, after all. But I think the Pedro factor is worth taking into account – and I think it’s one of the reasons the Scuderia were so quick to sign him once HRT went belly up.


Posted by Robert Blows on 23/03/2013

MP4 27 VZ MP4 28
Maybe the 27 will become the interim race car after Malaysia, but only for the next 4 Gp,s, because the time cycle should by then have sorted the 28,s development deficits out.
Yes, you need a tough minded person in control, but that person also has to be able to not only mould the best team around him, but be on good terms with the whole factory .... If you do not all work together to acheive results, then you do not have a team .... It is obviously not lack of opportunity, but more a case of who has the best financial offer to make that causes most people to move on in all walks of life, so for so long as there is complete inequity in F1 team season budgets the best guys will allways get poached by teams with bigger budgets, and Ill give you 3 guesses who has the biggest budgets.
Thats why small teams strive to win, but stuggle to acheive the ultimate results ... McLaren has been and will continue to be the most innovative team from bottom to top.

Posted by Riza on 23/03/2013

I think even when Ron Dennis was in charge, it still no different to what we've seen today, even when Newey was there, McLaren didn't scored success like Williams or RedBull, and they lost Newey to Redbull instead, Newey was there from 97-05 and McLaren only scored 2 WDC and 1 WCC.. duh? even in Senna-Prost era, in 87 Prost wants Senna to join in but eventually left the team, then they loss Montoya, Raikkonen, Alonso, Hamilton and now Paddy Low as well, why?

I think is because McLaren still has Dennis bad influences in managing people, I think Dennis has more to blame with his "no one is bigger than the team" rather than MW or SM, McLaren needs someone who can really take care the team very well..

Good luck McLaren..

Posted by MichaelK on 22/03/2013

I had pedro in my car during the 2012 Aussie GP drivers parade. As we went round the lap i asked him about his racing experiences at Arrows, Sauber/HRT vs testing for McLaren. He said the cars he drove at McLaren were phenomenal and oddly cited the MP4/19b as the best with "phenomenal power and grip" I thought it odd given 2005 was the last year of the V10 cars, and thought they would have been the pinnacle... but i guess its all down to driveability and feel?

He was an extremely friendly guy and very happy to talk about f1.

Posted by Dominique on 22/03/2013

If we look around 2012 Ferrari, they switched to a pull suspension also and were a dog to start. Give Mclaren a chance to learn. Who knows it may pay dividends for 2014

Posted by fuelscoops on 22/03/2013

Not sure I quite understand some of the opinion in this article. I thought Sam was the sporting director at Mclunker i.e. not employed in a technical capacity and wasn`t it Paddy who headed the team that designed the MP4/28 in the first place?

Posted by DCLXIV on 22/03/2013

Remember what happened when McLaren tried to go revolutionary? The MP4-18. That went well for them.

I suppose it could be argued that they eventually turned it into a winner in the guise of the MP4-19B, but that took a year and a half, something they don't have this time with the major changes next year.

Posted by Woody on 22/03/2013

It's more of a combination actually than just Pedro dela Rosa. their biggest loss is Adrian Newey, then Pedro, now Paddy Lowe. Kimi would've won atleast 2-3 championships with them but they threw those chances away too. but they gifted him his 2007 championship when lewis' car faltered a few laps from the last lap.

Posted by Johnny G on 22/03/2013

I have to agree with the authors' "pet theories".
Whitmarsh is a good lieutenant but no general. He needs to "grow a set" and make some heads roll. This in not a nice guy's sport. Decisions have to be made, and made quickly not discussed at length in a pompous gentleman's boardroom. If they need to go back to the old car then do it already! Pedro is an asset to be sure. Obviously the man knows not only what input to give but how to deliver it in a language to match the minds of those making the necessary tweaks. Jenson is a good driver but never gives you the impression of a "hungry" driver.
Sergio is still a relative "pup" so the jury is still out on him. All the money, talent, and sophisticated facilities mean nothing if it can't put dinner on the table. Time to ditch the tidy suits and get some dirt on you boys. This is a bloody fight and the sooner Mclaren realizes that, the more they can deliver the blows instead of receiving them!

Posted by Ash on 22/03/2013

I have pondered the Sam Michael effect myself, a deplorable track-record at Williams and literally (as you mentioned) the second he leaves Williams they come good and Mclaren lose the plot.

I have to admit, Mclaren's record since Hakkinen and Coulthard has been embarrassing to say the least. Mclaren really is in a trough. You are spot on Kate with Mclaren being better than any other at throwing away championships, I cite '00, '03, '07, '10, '12 as examples. All things considered, 3 championships post-Senna-era is not good enough. I know it's not their 'style' but failing to establish a '#1' driver has cost them most of those titles.

I fully agree with you that it is a combination of all the factors. De la Rosa is the most under-rated asset in F1 no matter where he goes. Lastly, all the hoo-haa last season about Hamilton leaving Mclaren for the doldrums was certainly justified at the time, but with the benefit of hindsight it appears he left the sinking ship at just the right time

Posted by Paul on 22/03/2013

An inspired article ! .. Mclaren try to be too clever ... to many boffins trying to justify thier existence with blue sky thinking ... as a result the common sense / track your opponents route is often lost

Posted by A on 22/03/2013

clearly last year's mclaren is in better shape than the current 1. this car is 2seconds of last years pace it cant even match lap times that the mp4/27 did in 2012 aus/malaysia free practice. my logic tell me revert to mp4/27 bring the development over from the 28 to the 27 and have a efficient mp4/27 like the old mpl4/17d of a fews years back that raced 3 quarters of a season. yes the tyres are different but the old car was no that harsh on its tyres towards the end of the season. i bet if you race a mp4/28 against the mp4/27 the older car would win by margins...... come mclaren dont mess up the start of the season score as much points as you can

Posted by Snorth on 22/03/2013

Sam Michael?

Posted by Anonymous on 22/03/2013

blar blar blar

Posted by Applebook on 22/03/2013

In my view, Whitmarsh is too nice to be a truly successful leader. F1 is cutthroat. Unless your staff is virtually faultless, as the principal you have to inspire some fear into your team. 2012 clearly demonstrated that the pit crew and some of the mechanics are either too lax or are incompetent. Not putting enough fuel into the car at the Spanish GP qualifying? Two major mechanical failures in Japan and Korea, several glaring car breakdowns while cruising in the lead, and countless botched pit stops. This is unacceptable at amateur levels.

Posted by Martin on 22/03/2013

hmm judging by her comments, seems like the Pedro factor is one reason why McLaren is slow and also why the Ferrari is fast this season

Posted by F1FanaticBD on 22/03/2013

Given the departure of Paddy Lowe, this will only make things worse for McLaren. Is there is any chance Ron Dennis will come back before its too late? Mclaren has been showing sign of breaking apart, and before it becomes an irreversible damage they should bring the necessary changes to save the team

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Kate Walker is the editor of GP Week magazine and a freelance contributor to ESPN. A member of the F1 travelling circus since 2010, her unique approach to Formula One coverage has been described as 'a collection of culinary reviews and food pictures from exotic locales that just happen to be playing host to a grand prix'. Kate Walker