Why do McLaren blow hot and cold?

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McLaren won ten races in 2005, then nothing in 2006

After a pole position and a win in his first two British Grands Prix, Lewis Hamilton goes into this year’s race knowing he’ll be lucky to score points.

At the sharp end of F1, teams come and teams go. But of late no team has oscillated between being championship-challengers and also-rans with the same unpredictability as McLaren.

This decade we’ve seen the decline of Williams, the rise and fall of Renault, and Ferrari generally competitive apart from a blip in 2005. But McLaren have often been racing for wins one year, struggling the next, and then swapping round again. Why can’t one of F1’s best-resourced teams manage better consistency?

A glance at McLaren’s win record in recent seasons illustrates their strange form:

McLaren wins, 2002-2009 (click to enlarge)

In 2004 only an inspired performance by Kimi Raikkonen at Spa – in a heavily revised MP4-19 – prevented McLaren from spending the season winless. That set them up for an excellent 2005 where they won ten times and were in the running for both championships.

The following season the MP4-21 failed to to win a race. Then in 2007 they were competitive again: Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso scored more points in the MP4-22 than any other car managed (but the team’s spygate penalty meant no constructors’ championship).

Last year’s car finally delivered their first title in nine years, but once again things have gone pear-shaped. McLaren have failed to master the new rules for 2009 and so poor are the MP4-24’s aerodynamic properties that the car was slowest of all through the ultra-quick turn eight at Istanbul. That does not bode well for their performance at Silverstone, which has plenty of quick corners.


Unusually, McLaren rotate the responsibility for producing their cars between two designers. Pat Fry was chief engineer on this year’s car, as he was on the 2007 MP4-22. Tim Goss was the man behind last year’s car.

That has been the case since the last car designed by Adrian Newey – the 2006 MP4-21 – before the superstar designer left to join Red Bull (whose cars have, unsurprisingly, begun to share certain characteristics with past McLarens since then).

Newey famously pursued an ultra-radical design for 2003, the MP4-18, which failed to pass crash tests and never raced. That gestated into the MP4-19 – hich was an unmitigated disaster, at least until they corrected its worst flaws with the MP4-19B. Subsequent McLarens expanded on that concept, often with success, but the massive overhaul of the rules this year forced meant an evolution of previous models was not possible.

Although this explains some of their difficulties, it’s still not a good explanation for why they’ve got it so badly wrong in specific years. With the McLaren Technology Centre they have resources the equal of, and more often better than, every team on the grid. Their car simulation and tyre modelling facilities are especially renowned – and the latter should have been an absolute boon as F1 switched from grooves to slicks over the winter.

Driver line-up

From 1996 to 2001, McLaren enjoyed stability in their driver line-up with the increasingly experienced duo of Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard. Since then they’ve not been able to hit that balance of experience and consistency, losing several top drivers to rival teams (Kimi Raikkonen, Fernando Alonso) or championships (Juan Pablo Montoya):

2002-2004: David Coulthard, Kimi Raikkonen
2005: Kimi Raikkonen, Juan Pablo Montoya, Pedro de la Rosa, Alexander Wurz
2006: Kimi Raikkonen, Juan Pablo Montoya, Pedro de la Rosa
2007: Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton
2008-2009: Lewis Hamilton, Heikki Kovalainen

Although they seem happy with Hamilton, who has a five-year contract with the team, Kovalainen’s deal only runs to the end of the season, and once again there are rumours that McLaren are looking for a replacement. But as long as their car’s in the doldrums, maintaining consistency in their driver line-up might be a smarter move.

Focus of resources

One explanation for their lack of form this year is that the effort put into ensuring a championship victory last year diverted resources from the 2009 effort. It’s no coincidence that two of the other teams who were concentrating especially hard on development at the end of 2008 – Ferrari and Renault – also started 2009 poorly.

Have McLaren fallen victim to a similar phenomenon on past occasions? Did their championship effort in 2005 detract from their 2006 effort?

If so, we must also ask how they were able to perform so strongly from the beginning of 2008. On that occasion not only had they been preoccupied with the 2007 title fight, but the fall-out from ‘spy-gate’, after which they were forbidden from developing certain components.

Whatever Hamilton thinks the reasons for McLaren’s fluctuating form is, it will likely be much on his mind as he prepares for a drubbing on home ground this weekend.

For McLaren the onus is now on Martin Whitmarsh, following his appointment as Ron Dennis later this year, not only to navigate the team out of this latest slump, but also tackle why it keeps happening, and find long-term solutions to their problems. The question is how.

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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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49 comments on “Why do McLaren blow hot and cold?”

  1. Carry that on further and they were amazing 90-93 they were useless again in 1994-1996 then became good again 97 onwards

    1. Their problems in the 90s were mainly due to the loss of Honda engines, which were a key ingredient in McLaren’s domination in the 80/90s era.
      The Peugeot engines used in 93-94 weren’t that good, then they switched to Mercedes engines, which were very unreliable in the first two seasons – until 1997.

    2. You mean 88-91, right? 92 car was very weak and got a few wins when Senna manage to find some speed or benefit from unusual races, it’s telling that despite his best efforts he still ended the season behind Schumacher who was in his first full season with his share of rookie mistakes and a Benetton that was more like last year BMW than a real top car. 93 car was no improvement, that season looks good on paper because was probably Senna’s finest as a driver, if he had going ahead and took a sabbatical like he treathed dueribg the off-season and McLaren had run Hakinnen/Andretti they would had 0 wins that year. The truth is during Williams great run in the 90’s things were very dark for McLaren.

  2. Good article. I too have been so confused that such a big and well resourced team can have such eratic results. Perhaps they need to strengthen their project management side of design operations as well…

  3. Apparently 2007, and part of 2008 success is due to being a silver ferrari ;)

  4. I just like the way Martin Whitmarsh has been appointed as Ron Dennis :)

    1. rofl – A liitle worrying that, isn’t it? :)

      1. I hope Martin turns up to Silverstone wearing a flesh-coloured swimming cap and some kind of McLaren retro puffer jacket.

        1. hahaha! Brill!

    2. Yeah I split myself when I read that :) Classic

  5. It is just a feeling because we do not have info enough about it, but I think that KERS is the main problem this year.

    All the teams that focused in developing KERS properly failed and the cars look too much sensitive to any track change or to any upgrade added.

    Even Ferrari that has done a fantastic evolution is suffering with the balance of the car. In a week the car is good in other is a shame…

    The teams that do not develop their cars around the system seems to have a much more stable performance through the season than BMW, Renault, Ferrari and McLaren…

    The problem is KERS, but who would admit that when they have to justify the amount of money spent to their bosses?

    Going right to the point, is Max Mosley´s fault… ;)

    1. I believe KERS is part of it, Becken, but probably only one part.
      Trying to keep up the 2008 Championship bid meant the teams involved couldn’t turn their full attention to this years` car as early as they would wish.
      Then McLaren, Ferrari & Renault were the 3 teams whose men made up the OWG to come up with this years reduced aero regs. Without wishing to start an old row, they went down one route believing the double-diffuser went against the rules which they had come up with. This inevitably left the car with less downforce than some of it’s rivals.
      Then there`s, as you say, the use of KERS with all its` inherent problems.
      It`s a sort of onion of problems where each layer has only added to the pain.
      Having said that, this really only applies to this year & it`s been noticeable for years that McLaren tends to see-saw between good & ‘bad’ cars.
      I don`t know why that should happen so regularly.

      1. If you look at this good and bad season thing then perhaps this budget cap idea could REALLY be a bad thing.
        Think about it this way, If a team has to spend their resources to go right to the final race of any given season, then will not have any money to work on the new car for the next season.
        I guess you could say that is a good thing though because the second season of a cycle could have the bottom half of the grid at the front and vice-versa.

    2. I totally agree with you. It seems like the teams that developed KERS did so because they were afraid NOT to have it on the track. But it seems that the big teams under estimated how much the new tires and aero would shift the handling balance of the car, and thus they lost out big time, but its too late to go back. Im hoping ferrari can pull something off, but I dont foresee a KERS car winning any races this year. How do you like that Mosley?

      1. Kubica could have done it in Australia had Button retired — but for the rest of the year, that’s probably true. I wouldn’t bet against one of the Ferraris pulling it off, though; they seem to have coped with KERS better than McLaren (even though the latter supposedly has a better device).

  6. Leaving aside the impact the Spygate documents may have had on their 2007/2008 performance…

    Specifically to your point about no drop-off in performance between 2007 and 2008, I think the primary reason was that very little (almost nothing) changed on F1 cars between those two seasons.

    1. Terry Fabulous
      17th June 2009, 1:58

      And you have hit the nail on the head there Armen, the key feature for the drop off years has been major changes of regulations.

      Having said that, every team had to face them….

      I think Keith may be onto something when he points out the size of the effort to the end of last year detracts from this year.

  7. Much of the lack of success following Mika’s two titles comes down to the Ferrari resurgence and then the banning of a material – can’t remember what it was called – within the engines built by Ilmor (unsuprisingly lobbied by Ferrari). The engines for 2002, 2003 and even 2004 were as a result down on performance and reliability.

    There was also the to-ing and fro-ing of Newey, when he signed for Bobby Rahal’s Jaguar team in 2001 (I think?) before recanting on the deal. Newey, who obviously needed a new challenge, then stepped away from the sole chief designer role for the MP4-18 with the infamous Mike Coughlan (sorry if I misspelled his surname) fresh from Arrows being behind that car along with Newey.

    Newey then came back with a vengence to design the MP4-20 for the 2005 season before buggering off to Red Bull at the beginning of 2006. The rules changed for ’06, bringing back tyre changes etc. meaning a new approach needed to be developed with the MP4-21, which was more in line with the ’04 rules and resulted in a winless season – almost like 2004. The same happened with Ferrari and unlike 2005 they were competitive – like in 2004.

    Hamilton and Alonso then got a car which did benefit from Ferrari data to some degree but was also a better car then previous, driven by two drivers now considered to be 2 of the top 3 on the grid. Last year Heikki did nothing special, seeing the number of team wins drop as a result, along with the FIA taking another away in Spa.

    We’ve all watched with interest was both McLaren and Ferrari, the teams which fought tooth and nail for the ’08 championship, struggle for form with the new rules. Clerly the resources required to develop their ’08 cars to the last race limited their success with the new rules, and the in-season testing bans have meant neither can spend their way to success like they used to be able to.

    Saying that, BMW have shown what not to do when you spend most of the previous season developing a future car…

    So there have been some external forces behind the McLaren inconsistency, but they are a case which really does show the cyclic nature of the sport. Hopefully, unlike Williams, they don’t stay down for too long.

    1. Mercedes/Ilmor used beryllium in their cylinder linings to decrease friction.

      1. Sush Meerkat
        17th June 2009, 21:39

        beryllium? wow, hardcore, that stuff has the greatest brittle to hardest ratio on earth.

        Makes a great mid and tweeter for speakers on high end hifi systems due to how brittle yet how strong it is, but in an engine?, crazy. Crazy sometimes pays off though.

    2. Sush Meerkat
      17th June 2009, 21:36

      can’t remember what it was called – within the engines built by Ilmor (unsuprisingly lobbied by Ferrari).

      Not surprised, its a very poisonous metal they used, that once in becomes airborne is a killer.

      and Engines create explosions inside themselves to create propulsion, surely that explosion would send some harmfull gases out.

  8. Could it be that the Mclaren lean times coincide with the lack of a driver who is able to give effective techincial feedback to the engineers? In my mind the best development drivers that McLaren have had (since ’96) were Mika Hakkinen David Coulthard & Fernando Alonso. JPM, Kimi and Lewis were/are good drivers, but dont seem to be able to lead evelopment on a car.

    1. Not really.
      You improve the already built car with the drivers’ input during the season, but when the construction is first being developed over the winter and then built – it can turn out to be a great car or a slow car, and no driver can help it.
      And don’t forget the test drivers – McLaren hasn’t had inexperienced test drivers in their bad years.

    2. don’t forget PDLR!

    3. With reduced testing, the drivers can’t make much contribution this season.

  9. those who think 2006/7 were because of the ferrari dosier are barking mad. the ferarri and he mclaren were very very different cars. even if you accept they had obsorbed everything in the dossier, that wouldnt explain why those cars were good.
    the reason is, there isnt one reason. diferent times, different reason. this year they went full blow kers, and it hasnt worked. its not the whole reason, but its a big factor.
    and i just dont think its right to say they are the best resorced team out there. they have a big posh factory, but whats inside it dosnt come close to what this years front running team had at their disposal during their design stage. i believe 4 wind tunnels, one of which was full size…3 axis jig…mclaren only have a very basic 11 poster rig…they only have one 60% wind tunnel. whats made the different this year is hours in wind tunnels…and brawn had far more than anyone else.

  10. Granted McLaren have come up with some overly complex designs in an attempt to build a quick car (the MP4-18 is the classic case), but it isnt that strange that their form has bounced around.. they’re competing in a competitive championship!

    How did Ferrari manage to be so consistent from 1999 to 2008? Thats an interesting (off-topic) question!

    1. David (Brazil)
      17th June 2009, 2:15

      How did Ferrari manage to be so consistent from 1999 to 2008?

      Perhaps having a secret veto on any new FIA regulations?

      1. Don’t be ridiculous. The Ferrari team and its drivers did an excellent job in those years to beat the competition.

        Mclaren also did an great job being so competitive in 07-08, that wasn’t just down to just a dossier.

        1. David (Brazil)
          18th June 2009, 12:45

          Don’t be ridiculous. The Ferrari team and its drivers did an excellent job in those years to beat the competition.

          So why have a secret veto with FIA all that time if it brought no advantage? The reply was to why so consistent, not a denial that Ferrari also had the technical expertise and driver(s) needed to win. But if you like to think in b+w, go ahead.

    2. Because they had a driver called michael schumacher who could win a race driving an industrial bin. And they could build a car carrying over performance from the previous year.

      Ferrari were also successful, because there realability was almost perfect, and they had sole bridgestone development tyres which were tailored to there car perfectly.

  11. Alright, lets clear this up. The 2007/2008 McLarens had NO Ferrari-derived parts in them.

    1. Mclaren were caught out cheating plain and simple the proof is there. They were caught with ferrari documentation and applied it to there car.

      I think mclaren got screwed by the FIA because what they did i have no doubt every other team on the grid do. They were stupid enough to get caught.

    2. halifaxf1fan
      17th June 2009, 19:21

      $100M fine for cheating and 3 McLaren design engineers fined $200k each for theft of intellectual property adds up to a lot of Ferrari tech in that McLaren. Unless you have proof otherwise?

  12. Great title on this post—really caught my attention.

  13. schumi the greatest
    17th June 2009, 8:59

    The inconsitency has only been this decade if you look back to the 80’s mclaren won the tittle in 84 with lauda, 85 with prost, and 86 with prost. 87 was dominated by williams because of the superior engines that honda supplied. honda moved to mclaren with senna in 88 and mclaren won the tittle in 88, 89, 90 & 91. 1 tittle for prost, 3 for senna. But during this time renault had been closing and by 92 the williams-renault combination was far superior. 93 with ford engines was only saved by some super efforts by senna but the decline had already begun.

    until mercedes got on board with mclaren they were going nowhere. They made steady improvements during 96/97 then in 98 they were the best team again.

    this trend followed until 00 but schumacher and ferrari took the championship in part due to inconsistency from mclaren drivers and un relaible cars.

    i think 1 of the problems is the swapping of designers for every year. that cant help learn from mistakes can it?

    it is a tough 1 but i hope they bounce back next year and we can see hamilton fighting the ferraris back at the front again

  14. The ’07 McLaren did not have Ferrari parts on it, I never said it did. What I said was they benefited from Ferrari data, particularly on the behaviour of Bridgestone tyres after the switch for McLaren from Michelin. That fact is indisputable. The Ferrari information also led McLaren to protest the Ferrari F2007’s flexible floor – remember that? It kinda got lost in the spygate scandal.

    The stability and quality of all the major players at Ferrari gave them an edge. I hated it, as I thought and still feel Schumacher was a flawed genius (Adelaide ’94, Jerez ’97 etc…) but they had an awesome team. McLaren had driver changes with Mika retiring, Coulthard past it, and JPM playing tennis. Kimi rarely had a reliable car, and as I said I think Newey wanted a fresh challenge – there was all the talk while he was at McLaren about him designing America’s Cup yachts… you don’t hear of that now he’s at Red Bull do you?

    Interesting to see how their 2010 car goes. They will have already begun work on it I’m sure, hoping to do a Brawn

    1. flawed genius or he had what it took. Senna was no different yet people see him as the greatest, Alonso and hamilton have the same streak. Put them in a situation and they would do the same. Thats the killer instinct a champion has. Senna did the same thing to prost several times. 97 was blatent and stupid. 94 however, Hill should have held off and took him down the straight. Schumi was in front and hill drove up the inside unsighted.

      1. I don’t know phill c, the video of the ’94 incident shows Shumi the Cheat going out of the track, hitting the barrier, returning to the track with a broken supension, waiting for Hill and …well, it seemed like cheating to me – and the rest of his career did nothing to make me give him the benefit of the doubt. Regarding Senna, he did not hit Prost on purpose several times. He did it once, as a payback for what Prost did to him in the same circuit the year before.

        1. Difference of oppionion, Schumi and Senna were identical. Same as Alonso. Senna drove prost off the road at 250km an hr. Schumi recovered turned to defend his line, and hill drove up the inside.

          I still have no doubt, any other driver on the grid would do the same. Schumi didn’t care if he finished 2nd in a race or championship.

  15. I think several factors contributed to McLarens up and down form over the course of this decade. Regulations changes have played their part, as has the need to go radical to catch up with Ferrari.

    Probably the thing which makes the biggest difference in performance is the tyres. As has already been mentioned Ferrari had a very close relationship with Bridgestone and for a lot of their dominance were the only top team using the Bridgestones and the tyres were developed specifically for Ferrari, whereas Michelin had to develop their tyres more generally with a few top teams in mind.

    In 2005 when McLaren came good, tyre changes were banned, (this was the main reason for Ferrari’s poor season). Then in 2006 tyre changes came back and McLaren were off the pace again. 2007 saw Bridgestone as the sole tyre supplier and McLaren were again competitive, whereas Renault who had a closer relationship with Michelin and also lost Alonso suffered a big fall.

    Ferrari’s dominance in the first half of the decade was down to the great team they had assembled, and it meant that each car could be an evolution of the previous car rather than the more risky total redesign which other teams had to do to try to catch up. Indeed for a few years Ferrari started the season with the previous years car (and still won), while they waited till the new car was up to standard both performance and reliability wise.

    In 2003 McLaren tried the risky total redesign approach, I remember the unraced MP4-18 being described as the needle nose as it had a low narrow nose.

    The MP4-19 continued with the low narrow nose, and insiders said it was basically the MP4-18 with a new name, and as has been pointed out McLaren weren’t competitive in 2004 until the MP4-19B came along. This was the same season when Williams also went radical with its walrus nose car the FW26 (which was modified before the end of the season in to a traditional nose race winning car).

    Then for 2005 the MP4-20 had a low wide nose (one of my personal favourite cars), and it was regarded as the quickest car of the season but didn’t win a title because of reliability.

    But then for 2006 and the MP4-21 they went back to the low narrow nose design and had their first winless season since 1996. It surprised me that the front end looked more like the unsuccessful 2004 car than the quick 2005 car, but McLaren must have thought they had finally got that design to work, and as the 2007 MP4-22 was quick I suppose they did eventually.

    Stepney passed the Ferrari documents to Coughlan in March/April 2007, this was too late to have a fundamental impact on the MP4-22 which won the first race with Alonso and enabled Hamilton to go on that run of podiums. So to say McLaren’s 2007 pace was all down to Ferrari in my view is incorrect.

    With regards to switching design teams, I can see the benefits as one team can work on the same car from the first drawings all the way to it’s last race, but there has to be quite a bit of crossover between the two teams because of developments which would effect the over car.

    Does anyone know which other teams use this design method, I think Renault have used it for a few years but am not sure about the rest.

    Sorry for the long post.

    1. You may be happy to know that the 2009 Mclaren has a wide nose, but its not winning.

  16. I think the 2 good seasons had to do with Alonso being a good car developer. The year with alonso was clearly their best, the one with Hamilton already saw a downfall and now they do not ave a driver who can steer development in the right direction. At renault you see the oposite. Alonso is back and by the end of the year they win races. Another proof is Ferrari, they can design good cars but neither Massa nor Raikonnen can develop a car as Schumi or alonso can.

  17. halifaxf1fan
    17th June 2009, 14:45

    The spygate cars of 2007 and 2008 should be excluded from the list as they were not McLaren designs.

    1. stiring.com

  18. I’m sure someone at McLaren is thinking “Nigel Stepney, where are you when we need you……again!”

  19. Maclaren’s problem is that they have a committee working on the cars, rather than an inspired designer. The MP4-24, is still an evolution of the MP4-19B. Newey used a similar design in his first car with RBR, but this season he realised the concept was going to be deficient and thus deviated completely from that evolutionary line. Mclaren for whatever reason are just stuck with that concept.
    If you ask me, I think Mclaren had slready began to suffer in 2008, but for Hamilton’s effort, it would have been an average car.

  20. The only reason the best teams are out of the running is because the FIA knew full well that the small teams needed a financial boost – especially from the the dwindling sponsors… Spanker instigated some cheating in the form of diffusers, and suddenly we have rubbish drivers like Rubens and Button playing the pretend game…

    F1 is garbage.

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