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GP Week : Issue 114
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 on- track 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 32