Will Gray

Team by team previews: McLaren

Will Gray

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Who will step up and become team leader?

It's been 13 years since McLaren won a constructors world title — but after their most settled pre-season for a long time could this be the year they finally live up to their potential?

Red Bull may be the champions but McLaren have laid down the gauntlet and, with a settled team of engineers, a stable driver line-up and what looks to be a strong car, there is serious hope that they can mount a strong challenge this year.

Testing suggests Red Bull is still the car to beat, but there are several key elements that are different for McLaren this year that could help their hopes of planning an attack.


Recent seasons have seen McLaren struggle to get a car working straight out the box — but this pre-season period has gone well.

Last year, the team's experiments with a radical 'octopus' exhaust failed and they were forced to ditch it just weeks before the opening race and pull together a quick fix based on Red Bull's approach to the blown diffuser.

They were immediately on the back foot and it was remarkable that despite this quick change they managed to secure the strong results they did in the early part of the season.

At times during the year, they did prove a match for the Red Bull, winning several races when they could get close enough for a fight. But the initial issues cost them development time in the crucial early part of the season and allowed Red Bull to get a foothold in the championship as McLaren were still trying to understand the concept before they could fast track its development.

This year, the pre-season has gone very well, with McLaren clocking up almost 3,000 miles and working methodically through a shakedown, set-up and development programme.

Such stable pre-season progress should pay huge dividends when the season kicks off in Australia — particularly as this year looks like it may be the opposite of last, with Red Bull making a radical pre-season change that appears to be taking them in McLaren's direction.


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McLaren pose the biggest threat to Red Bull

The importance of stability in Formula One cannot be underestimated and this is an area in which McLaren scores very highly.

Ferrari is in the middle of a major (and seemingly ongoing) reshuffle, with former McLaren man Pat Fry trying to turn things around. Likewise Mercedes has a stable base of engineers but has only just fed in some top-line technical chiefs beneath Ross Brawn to provide the experience needed for those crucial calls when the pressure is on.

At McLaren, the well-honed engineering team is strong, with the team enjoying perhaps one of the most loyal staff groups in the paddock. Another year down the line, and with the benefit of learning from the experience of early last year, they will be that little bit stronger.

Red Bull have, of course, nurtured a strong team themselves in recent years so this stability is not necessarily an advantage over them - but it is one less disadvantage.


Perhaps the most interesting element this year is the apparent contraction of the competitive field.

Testing reports suggest there are a number of teams in the mix this year, with Red Bull and McLaren set to be the leaders but Mercedes looking strong and Renault possibly knocking at the door — and with increased competition comes increased unpredictability.

Last year, Lewis Hamilton finished second in the opening race, Jenson Button was second in the second race and Hamilton won the third. In contrast, Sebastian Vettel won the first two and was second in the third, then won again with neither McLaren on the podium.

The consistency of Vettel gave him a strong early lead and, with a points buffer of more than one race victory after just four races he was able to control the season from then on.

This year should be different — so even if McLaren's promising pre-season form fails to follow through, there could be others that sit in Vettel's way for now (including some rejuvenated internal competition from Mark Webber) setting up a more tightly contested title battle this year.


Perhaps the least settled element of the team last year was Hamilton, whose off-track issues appeared to affect his manner both on the track and in the paddock.

A few choice words in Monaco blew up a storm and the rest of the season saw his every move analysed; his issues attributed to the increasing pressure on him to perform as Button started to replace him as the team's golden boy.

Things turned around at the end of the season, however, and the arrival of Didier Coton will be a vital addition to Hamilton's team as he seeks to regain his position as the team lead.

If he does, that could present McLaren with quite a challenge.

Assuming the car has front-running pace, the strong driver line-up looks a good bet to put up a decent fight for the elusive constructors' crown. But for the drivers' title they need one driver to take another step up and dominate within the team — otherwise at some point they may have to play the ugly team orders card to take the title...

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