- GP Week
Don't call it a comeback
From testing no-hopers to race winners in less than a month, just how did McLaren turn their 2011 season around in a matter of days? GPWEEK's Naoise Holohan looks back on an extraordinary turn-around at McLaren after one of their worst ever pre-season testing campaigns.
Lewis Hamilton swooped to McLaren's 170th grand prix victory just over a fortnight ago at the Chinese Grand Prix, after snatching first place from world championship leader Sebastian Vettel with less than 25 km left in the race. Just one month earlier, however, his team was in crisis.
Having been comfortably beaten by Red Bull in 2010, McLaren recognised the need to go radical for 2011, and saw the revised diffuser regulations as an opportunity to do so, like many other teams. McLaren's approach was to design a complex exhaust system to boost downforce, dubbed the "octopus" exhaust, but the system proved catastrophically unreliable. While main rivals Ferrari and Red Bull were busy racking up an average of over 400 km of running per day, McLaren struggled to get past 300 km per day. Further hampering their effort to get the MP4-26 reliable was the decision to delay its track debut, meaning the first three days of on-track testing were conducted with last year's MP4-25 model, giving the team less time ontrack with the new, unproven car.
Newly-appointed technical director Paddy Lowe recently remarked that the 2011 winter was the worst he had experienced in 20 years, putting into perspective the dire straits that the team found itself in during the February and mid-March tests. Day after day the team would return to the test track confident that they had solved the reliability problems of the day before, only for more, previously unseen, issues to crop up that day. That meant the team wasn't able to fully evaluate the performance potential in the car, with almost all the effort going into making sure the car was running reliably.
"The winter tests in February and early March were probably some of our most challenging experiences in terms of running reliability that I can remember in 20 years," said Lowe. "It was an exhausting month for everyone at Woking and Brixworth [HQ of engine supplier Mercedes]. There weren't actually that many issues, but we kept experiencing a variety of failures with our new exhaust system. We'd come into the circuit each morning thinking we'd fixed the problems of the previous day, only to be met with a fresh series of trials the next day! Those days were very difficult for the team."
Despite the character-building travails, McLaren stuck with their radical exhaust, clearly confident that they would be able to make it work eventually. Things failed to improve, however, and in their final four-day test in Barcelona the team completed just over 1,000 km while Red Bull and Ferrari clocked up over 1,700 km. The switch had finally tripped in McLaren HQ at Woking and all effort was engaged in designing a brand new exhaust package to be ready in time for the season-opening grand prix in Melbourne on March 27th.
"If you can't beat them, join them" they say, and that's precisely what McLaren did. Having failed to get their own exhaust to work, they looked into their neighbouring garage for inspiration, with their new system debuting in Australia bearing a striking resemblance to that on the Red Bull RB7. The brave move reaped rewards almost instantly. The team enjoyed a trouble-free first practice session the first time they ever ran the car with the new exhaust and even topped the times in the second session two hours' later.
"That experience [of preseason testing] prompted us to re-design the exhaust package in time for the first race in Australia," continued Lowe. "In fact, first practice at Albert Park was the very first time we ran the car in that new configuration. It was also the first time we'd done significant mileage in a single day. Things came together just in time - and that was down to a combination of factors: we were lucky, I have to admit, but it was much more than luck. You have to factor in the skill of the team to work together in a very short period of time to push in a completely different direction; to understand all the different issues - the reliability, the performance - the skills of the team, all the tools they've created over the years; they all came through to our profit."
Although they weren't able to challenge Red Bull for the victory on Sunday, Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button brought their cars home in second and sixth places, having previously never been reliable enough to complete a single race distance without breaking down. The achievement was worthy of a win and put the team in the middle of a title fight that few had expected to feature anyone other than Red Bull and Ferrari.
Two races on and McLaren are winners again. The emotion on Hamilton's face as he stood atop the podium to pick up his second Chinese Grand Prix victory highlighted just how momentous an occasion it was to come from the shambles of a stop-start pre-season testing campaign to winning grands prix on merit at the very pinnacle of motorsport again. A scare with a fuel flooding incident just minutes before Hamilton was due to leave for the grid only added to the extraordinary achievement and reminded everyone that writing McLaren off is a foolish and dangerous business to be in.
"For Australia, we had 10 days. In China, just six minutes. In both instances, the team brought all their resources to the objective and rose magnificently to the occasion," concluded Paddy. "It still makes me emotional when I think about it."