The teams: McLaren (F1 2008)

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Lewis Hamilton scored McLaren\'s sixth win of the year at Shanghai
Lewis Hamilton scored McLaren's sixth win of the year at Shanghai

The irony of McLaren?s season was that the team?s reliability won Lewis Hamilton the drivers? championship, but their drivers? inconsistency cost them the constructors? championship.

That?s putting it rather glibly: Hamilton wouldn?t have been champion without drives like his Silverstone master class. But the points he threw away in races like Bahrain and Montreal could have helped McLaren beat Ferrari to the teams’ title.

The ??even years? haven?t gone well for McLaren of late: 2002 was a write-off, the team grabbing a sole victory at Monaco; 2004 was lost to chronic unreliability; in 2006 they had reliability but too little pace.

In 2008 they broke that cycle and they did it coming off the back of a hellish 2007. The shock waves from the ‘spygate’ bombshell reverberated into the winter, and it was only a few weeks before the season began that the MP4/23 was given the all-clear to compete. Even then, McLaren had to agree not to develop several technologies the FIA felt might have been inspired by Ferraris designs.

After that, seeing Lewis Hamilton stick the new car on pole position at the first race and drive straight to the chequered flag with little disruption was the shot in the arm the team needed,

Ferrari gave them a reality check in the following races with a string of wins. When the conditions were clear and predictable, McLaren couldn?t stop their rivals. But when the track was wet, unseasonably cool or, as at Montreal, crumbling, McLaren and Hamilton seized the initiative. If the F2008?s strength was its sheer speed in ideal conditions, the MP4/23s greatest weapon was its adaptability.

The MP4/23 was also impressively reliable ?ǣ at least, Lewis Hamilton?s was. Heikki Kovalainen had three race-ending car failures, two of them engine-related, the third the wheel breakage that caused his nasty crash at Barcelona. Despite the speed and angle of the impact, a deep tyre wall and strong nose assembly protected the driver.

On more than one occasion a head-slapping blunder from Hamilton presented his rivals with gift-wrapped points.

And the team joined in, with some questionable strategic calls, though nothing as destructive of last year?s cock-up at Shanghai. They failed to pit Hamilton during a safety car period at Hockenheim, and poor tyre choice during qualifying at Monza left him stuck in the midfield. At Interlagos, the team seemed to go over-cautious, leaving Hamilton nursing a heavy fuel load yet having to pit directly after Massa?s stops in order not to be compromised by the safety car ?ǣ the worst of both worlds. But events proved McLaren?s much-maligned decision to not use Hamilton?s engine ??joker? (allowing one penalty-free engine change) as a tactic was justified.

McLaren fought a development race with Ferrari at the end of the season while the likes of BMW were concentrating on next year?s car. They spent ??4m on developments for Interlagos alone.

Did McLaren divert too much of their resources from its 2009 campaign? We will know the answer to that in a few months. But refining one F1 car while creating another from scratch – to a radically different set of rules – is exactly the sort of challenge the McLaren Technology Centre was created for. On the night after Hamilton?s reception party, engineers were putting new parts in the wind tunnel…

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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15 comments on “The teams: McLaren (F1 2008)”

  1. Im a big fan of mclaren mostly due to the fact that they are a british company with the power of german engine which for me is the perfect combo. If i was the boss i would drop heikki if next season does not go well and bring in test driver gary paffet to see what he can do, because i know we would all be supprised.

  2. Pre-2008 McLaren’s reputation was as a team that was very strong at pushing the technical envelope – but sometimes at a cost of reliability (see 2004-5) – but not so good on more operational issues like race strategy. The team looked a lot stronger all round this year and it won them the title.

    In ideal circumstances the 2008 McLaren was not as quick as the Ferrari but it had a much wider window of operations – good in cold conditions, good in the wet, almost always good in qualifying.

    There were some dubious moments – the failure to call Hamilton into the pits at the right time in Germany, for instance – but Ferrari more than made up for that with their own problems. It’s also astonishing that Lewis didn’t retire once all year because of mechanical problems – a puncture and a pitstop delay was about as bad as it got.

    Kovalainen’s form was puzzling at times, although Mark Hughes offered an explanation in last week’s Autosport and it could well be that Heikki benefits from the new rules.

  3. If I was bringing one of their test drivers into a race seat, I’d pick Pedro de la Rosa. I haven’t seem him drive much, but he’s no less competent than Kovalainen, and has been with McLaren for a very long time.

  4. @Tim – I read the Mark Hughes piece in Autosport as well, and while it was superficially convincing, I’m always a little bit dubious of stories about how different cars suit different drivers’ ‘styles’. These guys are supposed to be the absolute best, and so should be able to adapt their style to the car they’re driving. Admittedly, 2008 was such a close year that a tenth or two could mean several places on the grid.

    But there was analysis a few years ago of Jackie Stewart against a couple of F3000 hot shots. The young drivers (whose names I forget, this was back when F3000 was the F1 feeder series), were used to the cars and would pull higher maximum G through the corners. But within a few laps the veteran Stewart was faster, because he understood the car better, and could maintain a higher average cornering speed by adapting his style to the car.

    Mark Hughes argues that Kovy is gentler into corners (in a Jackie Stewart Zen-like style), while Lewis prefers a pointier, dartier, inherently more unstable set up. He thinks Kovy will be closer to Lewis on next year’s slicks. But in terms of average qualifying positions, Kovy and Lewis were among the closest on the grid in 2008. It’s more in the race where Kovy has fallen back. Sometimes his caution in avoiding contact has led to him losing a place or two he has never recovered. Finnish drivers (Rosberg senior, Hakkinen, Raikkonen) have given the impression of being – in the nicest possible way – a little bit mental. Kovy on the other hand is almost too much of a gentleman racer. It’s almost as if the McLaren doctor has extracted his killer instinct and injected it into Lewis by mistake.

    @Anonymous – Pedro is highly rated as a test driver, but his races have never sparkled, either as McLaren sub, or in his Arrows and Jaguar days. Also, he’s an old man by F1 standards.

    @Keith – 1974, 1976, 1984, 1986, 1988, 1990, 1998 were all good ‘even’ years for McLaren. Maybe they’re back to their 1980s form?

  5. I believe the Mclarens team reliabilty partly won lewis the title and partly lost the constructors as Kovelinen had a few hiccups. Next year Kovelinen will score more points than he did this year.
    F1 drivers are the best in the world but some are more skilled than others and more composed under pressure. To drive a F1 car with your heart rate in the 140 plus range for 2 hours and experience G forces we only experience on a rollercoaster is exceptional. We should take our hats off to them and expect mistakes to be made so long as the teams learn and dont repeat them.
    Mcaleren spent £400 ‘odd’ million this year and will probably spend the same next year so i dont think they diverted anything from next year.

  6. Ironically their biggest mistake was made in the last race , by believing they were infallible to any other team than Ferrari , as it turns out STR and Renault were very much there. The strategy should have been to put Lewis on pole and go for the win while keeping out of obvious danger like they did in Fuji. A case of saved by the Glock…

  7. John Spencer – But wasn’t that Hughes’ point, i.e. that Kovalainen and Hamilton were often close in qualifying but Kovalainen struggled to keep up in the race because his driving style induced greater tyre wear?

    Not that I’m in any position to support or disprove his theory, but it is the only explanation I’ve seen that offers an explanation for Kovalainen’s poor race form without questioning his fundamental ability as a racing driver.

    The gap between the front of the grid and the back in Q1 for Brazil was just 1.7 seconds. As you say, small differences get magnified. You’re right that top level drivers should be able to be adapt their driving style to be there or thereabouts – but a having a car that does what the driver wants it to never hurts, especially when things are this close.

    The risk that Kovalainen faces for 2009 is that he’s now the de facto number two driver at McLaren. Unless he pulls out something special next year he’s unlikely to ever have quite the same status within the team as Hamilton.

  8. John Spencer — do you have a link to the Jackie Stewart F3000 test?

  9. @Peter Boyle – I was afraid someone might ask that. I saw it in an article in New Scientist by Kerry Spackman and Sze Tan (‘When the turning gets tough’, 13 March 1993) “which revealed how Jackie Stewart and other racing drivers continuously varied the curvature of their path, a strategy that allows them to accelerate out of corners more quickly.”

    The article itself doesn’t even show up in a search of New Scientist’s archives. The Kerry Spackman in question has his own website, but doesn’t get very specific about any of his research.

    [brief pause for more Googling]

    Some of the pictures are missing, but it does actually seem to say pretty much what I thought it did –

    “Stewart actually spends more time in the corner than Driver B because he has to take the sharper curve more slowly. However, he can exit faster because of his wider finishing radius, and this higher speed advantage stays with him all the way down the following straight, more than making up for time lost in the corner. Taking the corner and the straights on either side as a single problem, Stewart found the fastest solution”

  10. Mclaren’s reliability has been spotless since 2007. It was a sudden change after 3 years 2004,05,06 of hardly any completed races.

    Funny it happened immediately after the espionage controversy.

    Even more funnier is The ultra-reliable Ferrari of 04,05,06 was replaced by a fragile machine in 07,08.

    Does someone other than me also senses that Mclaren’s biggest gain from the Ferrari documents has been reliability rather than outright speed ? ?

  11. @sumedh – you might be onto something. Stepney half inches a precious document from Ferrari to give to McLaren. Ferrari reliability takes a nosedive, McLaren’s goes sky high. Maybe this is the document he passed on.

  12. The reliability with McLaren has to do with the 19000rpm limit if you ask me. The engine isn’t pushed to it’s limit!

    The last years the even years where pretty bad, I do believe they alternate their lead designer (or someone high:)) per year, i always thought that was the problem.
    They might have changed their approach.
    But it’s obvious Ferrari was quicker then McLaren, that’s why at Brazil they didn’t go for victory and pole, they knew they couldn’t!

  13. The Macca more than made up for a slightly lower outright speed than Ferrari by a more flexible car which performed brilliantly in the wetter cooler conditions faced in 2008 and for qualy too…

    They also gained from the tyre changes in a number of the races to a harder spec than in 2007 ….

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