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GP Week : Issue 148
It was in Jerez in early February that I got my first real indication that the MP4-27 would be this year’s car to beat. On Wednesday evening, Jenson Button met with the media in the McLaren motorhome to discuss his first two days behind the wheel of that season’s car. While the British driver’s comments were mild and cautionary, his body language told a very different story. Big gestures accompanied an irrepressible grin and expansive hand gestures. Meeting with the media 24 hours later was Lewis Hamilton, and the story was the same. The car felt good, he said, but it was too early to say anything more. But the excitement pouring off the McLaren driver was palpable – he was in the best mood the media had seen in months, fizzing with confidence and making jokes. w The drivers may not have wanted to risk making comments that would come back to haunt them, but the sense was that the boys in Woking had delivered a strong championship contender for the 2012 season. Two front-row lockouts in two races, one race win, and two P3 finishes proves that McLaren have certainly got it right this year. And it’s about time. Since Hamilton won the 2008 drivers’ championship, McLaren have not arrived at the first grand prix of the season with a car capable of challenging for the win. The MP4-24 was an absolute dog, although they improved it over the course of the year. The 2010 car was better, and again aged well, but it wasn’t good enough. As for the MP4-26, the car was a failure in winter testing, but a contender in Melbourne. Red Bull were utterly dominant last year, to the extent that it masked the strengths of the McLaren. So what did McLaren do right this year? There has been no one magic bullet, no single innovation that their rival teams are protesting against. Where the boys from Woking have done themselves proud this season is in delivering a solid car that ticks all the boxes. The MP4-27 proved itself to be reliable throughout pre-season testing, and it has continued to be reliable in the two grands prix weekends we’ve seen thus far. Unlike rivals Mercedes, McLaren have been able to deliver a strong qualifying session on Saturday without sacrificing their performance on Sunday. Partly because McLaren have traditionally run a low-slung nosecone, the designers were able to evolve the MP4-26, keeping its strengths and improving its weaknesses in a season where their fellow competitors have had to rethink their aerodynamics thanks to the unpopular platypus nose. Where last year’s car needed improving was in the high-speed corners, and qualifying at the Malaysian Grand Prix showed that the team have nailed it. The excitement shown by Hamilton and Button in Jerez was borne of having a car that they knew was quick right out of the box. But the real challenge now faced by McLaren is that of the development race. Being ahead is one thing. Staying ahead is another. While it’s preferable to be in the position of hunted, not hunter, McLaren will need to ensure that they stay ahead of the field when it comes to the introduction of upgrades and new parts. Where in recent years the Woking team have proved themselves to be highly adept at catching the competition, their last successful pre-season innovation was 2010’s F-duct, which was quickly replicated throughout the pitlane. In order to ensure that McLaren stay in the lead of the constructors’ championship, the team will need to be first in line with the in-season innovations, leaving their competitors racing to replicate while the brains in Woking continue to create. Time spent recreating the innovations of others, while necessary in order to remain competitive, is development time lost for one’s own ideas. RETURN OF THE MAC This year’s McLaren is the class of the f ield. KATE WALKER looks at what makes it so good, yet what could still threaten the team’s championship ambitions. 27 GPWEEK.com // F1 >>> FEATURE