- 2011 McLaren season review
McLaren best of the restLaurence Edmondson December 19, 2011
In part five of ESPNF1's season review, we look at McLaren's ups and downs in 2011 and the performances of drivers Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button
Championship position: 2nd
Best finish: 1st (China, Canada, Germany, Hungary, Japan, Abu Dhabi)
Best qualifying: 1st (Korea)
McLaren took six wins in 2011, but when one driver was having the race of his life the other was often struggling. To highlight that point, Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button only both appeared on the podium on two occasions, making it hard to pick out a brilliant all-round performance for the team.
However, the Chinese Grand Prix was an important race for McLaren as Hamilton took its first victory of 2012 and did so after a brilliant team effort to get him to the grid. He'd qualified third but the engine flooded in the garage ahead of the race and his mechanics were suddenly faced with a race against time to get him to his starting position. "The mechanics did an absolutely superlative job to identify the problem and rectify it within a very stressful timeframe," team principal Martin Whitmarsh said. "They really showed that they are the best in the world. I take my hat off to them."
Hamilton then set about thanking his mechanics by driving a tremendous race, although it was Button that led the field into the first corner. However, a mistake at his first pit stop, in which he drove into the Red Bull pit box, was costly and he soon lost a position to Hamilton on the track too. By the time Hamilton had made his final stop, Nico Rosberg, Felipe Massa and Sebastian Vettel still stood between him and victory, but he picked each one off with unerring precision - the likes of which deserted him later in the season - and went on to take an impressive victory.
For McLaren it was made all the sweeter by the struggle it had faced two months earlier in pre-season testing and the speed at which it had reversed its fortunes. "This was our first win of the year, a really important one, and a reward for all the work that everyone at Vodafone McLaren Mercedes has put in over the last six weeks," Whitmash said after the race.
The British Grand Prix will always be important to McLaren, so this year it was disappointing for both the team and its thousands of fans to see it struggle. The team was hit particularly hard by the one-off ban on off-throttle exhaust blown diffusers, and after Jenson Button qualified fifth and Lewis Hamilton tenth, team principal Martin Whitmarsh was almost apologetic in the team's Saturday night media briefing. "We aren't quick enough," he admitted. "But we will regroup. Whatever the regulations are, wherever the dial turns and rests eventually, we'll understand it."
Further mistakes were made in the race as Button emerged from one of his pit stops without a front-right wheel nut and had to retire, while Hamilton was underfuelled and dropped out of contention for the podium as a result. It was a bad performance by any standard, but was made all the more bitter as it was on home turf and at a moment in the championship when McLaren really needed to go on the attack.
Driver v driver race
Lewis Hamilton - 6/10
Hamilton's first few seasons in Formula One set the bar very high, and by those standards 2011 was a disappointment. For the first time in his professional racing career he was beaten by his team-mate and he found himself in battles - both on and off the track - that made him lose sight of the joy of racing.
Towards the second half of the season, events in his private life spilled over into race weekends and it eventually emerged that he had split up with long-time girlfriend Nicole Scherzinger. For some sections of the media that became a more interesting story than his on-track exploits, although he didn't help the situation by sulking through press conferences, even after he secured pole position in Korea.
There was no doubt that the dramas in his personal life had a negative effect on his racing, after he went into the summer break as the man to beat and emerging at Spa-Francorchamps as a lost soul. Meanwhile, team-mate Jenson Button was hitting the form of his life and that only appeared to darken Hamilton's mood as he found himself scrapping for fourth and fifth with the likes of Felipe Massa.
He eventually returned to form at the final few rounds of the season and his victory in Abu Dhabi was clearly an emotional one. Suddenly his winning smile was back and in Brazil he seemed much more content about all aspects of his life. On reflection he said that he learned some important lessons this year, adding: "I think in the future I'll look back on this season, smile and say 'I needed that'." Everyone in the sport is hoping he will emerge in 2012 as the competitive, gutsy and aggressive driver we love to watch - because without him, F1 simply isn't as good.
Jenson Button - 9/10
2011 was arguably the best year of Button's career as he delivered some heroic performances while consistently racking up points throughout the season. He didn't have the car to fight Sebastian Vettel for the title, but he took on everyone else and did remarkably well to beat Red Bull's Mark Webber to second in the championship in inferior machinery.
His three victories were all mightily impressive, from his drive through the field in Canada to his dominant display in the dry at Suzuka. He adapted well to the Pirelli tyres and his eight podiums at the final nine races was proof that he found the perfect harmony between car, rubber and road.
Qualifying was perhaps his only weakness and he only lined up on the front row three times over the course of the year. But towards the end of the season he was consistently among the top three and often made up for his lack of one-lap speed with impressive race pace. Given the car at his disposal, Button mounted a brilliant campaign and appeared relaxed and confident both on and off the track.
Chances for 2012
For the past three years McLaren has got off to a bad start before showing remarkable strength and depth by fighting back later in the season. But as impressive as it may be, it's not the way to win championships and everyone at the team is aware that it cannot hand the advantage to Red Bull again at the start of 2012.
The good news is that the team has finally found a development route it feels happy with and next year's car is set to be an evolution of this year's rather than an all new design. What's more work on the MP4-27 got underway relatively early and, where possible, the team has been testing new parts with plenty of success towards the end of the season.
But while McLaren has a strong platform to build on next year, rival Red Bull is evolving a car that has been at the front of the grid for the past three seasons and has proved incredibly difficult to match. The loss of the exhaust-blown diffuser might help McLaren as it has been an area in which it has always been a step behind Red Bull, but the MP4-26's sudden drop in performance at Silverstone when off-throttle blowing was banned is a bit of a concern.
Nevertheless, McLaren has a team capable of winning championships, and with its two drivers pushing each other to the limit it is still the best bet to challenge Red Bull in 2012.
ESPN verdict - 8/10
After the team's disaster in pre-season testing, in which its new exhuast concept completely flopped, 2011 was a pretty remarkable year. However, that disaster should never have been allowed to happen and it was a shame that McLaren then had to start the season roughly four weeks behind everybody else in terms of development.
Six wins, therefore, is not a bad tally and if Sebastian Vettel is removed from the equation there is no doubt that Jenson Button and McLaren had the best package. But McLaren isn't really about finishing second best, it's not in its ethos, so ultimately 2011 will have been a disappointment for Ron Dennis and the McLaren empire's top brass.
The soap opera surrounding Lewis Hamilton certainly didn't help, but his drives in China, Germany and Abu Dhabi proved that he is still worth the hassle. Meanwhile, Button has become a very strong competitor - albeit with different strengths to Hamilton - and towards the end of the season looked like a team leader. 2012 will be a fascinating year for McLaren and could be a very successful one if it makes up ground to Red Bull over the winter.
Laurence Edmondson is an assistant editor on ESPNF1