McLaren’s mistakes cost them championship success

2012 F1 season review

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When the MP4-27s lined up on the front row of the grid for the first race of the year in Australia, it seemed McLaren were ready to finally end their 14-year wait for a constructors’ championship trophy.

But as the season unfolded, the one-three finish Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton went on to score would be their best result of the season.

On pure pace, the MP4-27 was the car to beat this year. The team were quick to exploit the potential of using the Coanda effect to direct exhaust gasses into their diffuser to recapture some of the performance lost as the FIA tried to ban the exhaust blowing seen in 2011.

McLaren team stats 2012

Best race result (number) 1 (7)
Best grid position (number) 1 (8)
Non-finishes (mechanical/other) 7 (4/3)
Laps completed (% of total) 2,150 (90.18%)
Laps led (% of total) 365 (30.62%)
Championship position (2011) 3 (2)
Championship points (2011) 378 (497)
Pit stop performance ranking 2

In at least one other respect McLaren following the lead set by their rivals, replacing their distinctive drooped nose with a higher version, though the MP4-27 never sported the step seen on most of the other cars.

But failures in the car and by the team cost them the chance to bring home more championship silverware. And they likely contributed to Hamilton’s decision to leave.

Hamilton began the year with a trio of third-place finishes that briefly put him at the head of the drivers’ championship table. But errors by the team in the pits in Malaysia and China deprived him of better results, and another pair of mistakes in round four left him only eighth.

An even more costly blunder followed in Spain. With too little fuel in his car, Hamilton was banished to the back of the grid. On a track where overtaking is especially difficult his patient climb through the field was poorly rewarded with another eighth place.

Sam Michael, who had been hired from Williams as sporting director to ensure the team maximised the potential of what they brought to each race, set about improving the team’s performance in the pits. They drilled until they became consistently the quickest team around, but the benefits gained were never going to make up for the points lost earlier on.

Following his first-round victory Button had a poor run of form. Contrary to Hamilton, his problems were more self-inflicted as he seemed flummoxed by the tyres. He finished behind Hamilton in Spain despite starting 14 places ahead of him. Monaco and Canada proved disastrous – in the latter he was lapped while Hamilton claimed his first victory of the year.

The resurgence of Red Bull and Ferrari increased the pressure on McLaren. Having judged the tyre situation to perfection in Canada, Hamilton struggled in the closing stages in Valencia and ended up getting taking out by Pastor Maldonado. Button’s trials continued with eighth.

One of the car’s few weaknesses in terms of performance was its handling in wet conditions, where the drivers had difficulty making the tyres perform. Hamilton and Button have usually thrived in the wet, but during rain-hit qualifying sessions in Britain and Germany neither made it into the top five.

However Germany did see the arrival of an extensive upgrade including revised sidepods which put them back at the front of the field. Button claimed second in the race and Hamilton showed good pace after being delayed by a puncture. In Hungary he stuck the car on pole position and rebuffed the Lotuses for the team’s third win of the year.

In the nine races which followed the summer break the team produced another four wins and five pole positions. Yet their rate of scoring fell largely due to a single reason: unreliability.

The MP4-27’s gearbox proved a particular weakness: Hamilton’s failed as he led in Singapore. His championship chances effectively died along with it and a few days later he was announced as a Mercedes driver.

A similar fault led to Button receiving a five-place penalty on the grid in Japan. Hamilton was hit by another gear change problem in India, which was solved by a rapid pit stop to change his steering wheel along with all his other wheels.

Other technical problems dogged Hamilton during the Japanese and Korean rounds, the latter leaving him to fight a rearguard action against the likes of Kimi Raikkonen. He limped home tenth with a clump of Astroturf stuck to his car, causing further handling problems.

It was further proof that for Hamilton it was a year when if something could go wrong, it did. Ramming that point home further he retired while leading again in Abu Dhabi, this time with a fuel pressure problem.

His final victory at the Circuit of the Americas was classic Hamilton – a dogged pursuit of Sebastian Vettel yielded a single chance to claim the lead, which he seized. But the chance for a goodbye win in Brazil disappeared when Nico Hulkenberg spun into him.

That cleared the way for Button to claim his third win of the season, in addition to an emphatic win in Spa where he claimed pole position and drove away from the field as if it was 2009 again.

The MP4-27 was the quickest car of the year which makes it hard to avoid the conclusion that McLaren’s mistakes cost them and their drivers the chance to win championships. That squandered potential will weight heavily on their minds. And they know that losing Hamilton is a considerable blow.

The Spain blunder and the fumbled pit stops early in the season cost them many points but the late-season retirements hit them hardest. In addition to Hamilton’s problems Button retired from second in Italy and failed to reach Q3 in America with another failure.

It leaves McLaren with plenty to work on over the winter to ensure such a clear opportunity for championship success is not missed again.

McLaren drivers’ race results

Jenson Button 1 14 2 18 9 16 16 8 10 2 6 1 2 4 5 4 5 1
Lewis Hamilton 3 3 3 8 8 5 1 19 8 1 1 5 10 4 1

McLaren drivers’ laps per postion

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24
Jenson Button 136 119 188 68 89 71 58 54 35 30 28 21 30 82 33 29 14 5 8 6 1 0 0 0
Lewis Hamilton 229 156 167 91 111 50 54 45 26 26 9 9 7 5 1 19 6 14 3 1 2 14 0 0

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Images © McLaren/Hoch Zwei

Author information

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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41 comments on “McLaren’s mistakes cost them championship success”

  1. This is why it’s not just Adrian Newey that’s winning Red Bull these Constructor’s Titles. Red Bull, for the most part (and perhaps even more so, Ferrari, this year) have been on it.

    1. I was thinking about that today. Sure, Newey is a key factor in RBR’s success but he’s just that – a factor. McLaren squandering such a fast car this year, while Ferrari finished in the constructor’s ahead of them shows how important teamwork is in F1, and that makes me happy. Not just the car, not just the driver but the team make success happen.

  2. Still gutted about the way the season played out, I was sure this was the year…

    On a technical note, is it possible to use more strongly-contrasting colours for the graphs? Sometimes I find it hard to distinguish the colours when you use similar shades. This one wasn’t too bad, but I know there have been others where I’ve struggled a bit. :)

    1. Yeah, I’ll +1 this. When there are 24 lines I know it’s necessary to keep a teams drivers similar, but with just two it would be great if they were completely different colours.

    2. On a technical note, is it possible to use more strongly-contrasting colours for the graphs? Sometimes I find it hard to distinguish the colours when you use similar shades.

      I second that suggestion – I’m red/green colour-blind myself, so sometimes the graphs can be a bit of a mess. There’s not much that can be done on the graphs that show all the drivers at once, but stronger contrasts in colours for these articles with a selection of drivers would work wonders.

    3. I think it’s standard across the site, and the colours are similar because this groups teams together on the graph when all drivers are included.

    4. why not have a striped / non-striped line instead?

  3. In the end I’ve decdied I disliked 2012 as a season, as great as the racing was it was eclipsed (for me) by the feelings of helplessness and frustration that went with all the the mistakes and failures suffered by the McLaren team.

    1. I can feel that. This is why I stopped rooting for one driver/team after 2005. No prizes for guessing who I was supporting.

      1. That’s why I didn’t enter none of the race predictions on this website this year. Just watching the races is tense enough.

  4. These graphs really do flatter Button. The guy was comprehensively beaten by his teammate this year… but the amount of bad luck endured by Hamilton makes it seem like Jenson did a good job.

    1. If you actually look at it, they don’t flatter Button at all. It just looks awkward where the plugin draws the line across non-finishes and Hamilton’s low-classification in Valencia.

  5. ibra (@ibraf1)
    18th December 2012, 15:10

    McLaren is a cursed team….hamilton’s retirements remembered me of the old days when hakkinen and raikkonen retired while leading or fighting for the championships…

  6. This was certainly McLaren’s best chance to secure Lewis’ second title, and he would’ve almost certainly been this years champion had it not been for McLaren’s pit stop erorrs, fuel error and unbelievable bad luck for Lewis in terms of mechanical failures.

    Who “deserved” this the 2012 championship? Lewis imo. Fernando and Vettel were excellent, but Lewis just hasn’t put a foot wrong this year.

    1. Lewis just hasn’t put a foot wrong this year.

      @zubair380 On track, I’m inclined to agree with you there. It’s difficult to see how Hamilton has managed to do anything wrong out on the track. A small hiccup in Germany perhaps, but that’s the only race I think he could be considered to have driven badly in. (One could make the point that this is similar to Kimi, Fernando and Seb aswell)

      However, off the track Lewis has been incredibly bad. You only need to look at the twittergate scandals that he had this year to see the point I’m trying to make.

      He’s been a great driver, but not a great ambassador for the sport

      1. off the track Lewis has been incredibly bad

        Off the track stuff is just irrelevant. Besides, off the track he has been great, much more open and on a level with his twitter followers / fans, and genuinely seems like a relaxed person.
        And I don’t understand what’s the big deal with this “twitter scandal” thing, the telemetry he posted revealed almost nothing extra to what you can get by simply looking at an onboard (with speed/ gears / revs dial). Which is probably the reason why teams such as Caterham even publish some of their onboards [in great detail] in their respective magazines. Ok, I’ll admit its better off not being uploaded to twitter, but fed up with people making such a big fuss over it.

        And that minor interaction with Jenson was an honest mistake, again nothing to criticise him about, and if Lewis was in fact correct about Jenson unfollowing, his reaction is acceptable.

        Every single criticism that was placed on him last year, he has improved on.

        1. I don’t think the off track stuff is irrelevant at all. You may call his twitters harmless, but I think they point to the spirit of the thing and LH’s frame of mind, and put yourself in the postition of those on the team who are paying the big bucks to field the two Macs and pay the drivers their salaries.

          I say that if he has improved on every single criticism that was placed on him last year, it is because he put himself in the position of HAVING to do that or risk his reputation and his worth on the grid. It may have cost him a spot on a top team. ie. his improvement this year may have been too little too late.

          1. @robbie

            but I think they point to the spirit of the thing

            I honestly think you’re grasping at straws here.
            From a team’s point of view, they just want a driver who scores good points. To an extent, they couldn’t care less about off track personality etc. Just look at the way Lotus operate.

            Again, his twitter “scandals” was minor if anything at all.
            And my point about improving, usually drivers don’t recover as well when bombarded by everyone like he was last year, this year not only has he improved but the main point is that he’s been perfect.

      2. Like Alonso is any better with the problems he has caused Renault and McLaren

    2. But if you are going to somehow erase their pit stop errors, the fuel error, and the bad luck, then you have to do so for the other teams too, and then it isn’t as certain who would have been the WDC. I acknowledge you did say ‘almost certain’.

      Personally, I think that LH has shown himself to make mistakes when the pressure is at it’s greatest (he didn’t stamp his authority on his one WDC and he squandered some chances for a WDC in a few seasons too), so erasing some of the misfortune and putting him closer to the fight vs. SV and FA with a handful of races to go, may still not have, imho, made it a near certainty that he would have prevailed in the end.

      I’m also of the opinion that while he may not have ‘put a foot wrong’ this year, last year he put a lot of feet wrong, and he also admitted off-track distractions that cost him on Sundays, which I think not only might have taken some shine off the apple in terms of the team wanting to retain him at all costs, he also put extra pressure on himself after being somewhat trounced by Button last year, and therefore put himself in the position to not see that happen again in 2012. ie. He HAD to improve over last year. He had ground to make up the he himself lost all on his own. Had Button trounced LH again this year, I think we would be talking about LH squandering his opportunity on a top team to the point where they didn’t want/need him anymore, and as it is it sure didn’t feel to me like Mac begged and pleaded for LH to stay.

      1. Yeah good point @keeleyobsessed I forgot about his revealing twitters this year. Must have further taken the shine off the apple after his admissions last year of off-track distractions, which must have been very disheartening for the team and it’s sponsors who are spending the big bucks to hear. LH must have already known his time had come at Mac when he tweeted said tweets this year.

      2. @robbie

        Regarding your “off track” comment, look above :)

        Though he eventually won the title in 2008, it was won in the tightest circumstances. And throughout the 2008 I would say his mentality was sometimes on form and some races he was off.

        But this year, judging by his race performance week in -week out, and his general mental situation, [this is extrapolating to a great degree ofcourse..] I would say he would’ve been able to cope with championship pressures. But I honestly think he would’ve went into last 3(ish) races with a healthy advantage.

        nd the bad luck, then you have to do so for the other teams too

        But even if we take into account Vettel’s mechanical failures,and Alonso’s crashes, it’s clear that this year Lewis has taken the brunt of the bad luck.
        Just going by obvious misses : Malaysia – 2 pitstop errors, possible higher finish
        Bahrain – pitstop error, higher finish
        Spain – almost certain win had it not been for fuel
        Germany – after 6 cars go through debris, Lewis was the only one to get a puncture [you can scrap this one]
        European GP- Crash caused 100% Maldonado’s fault [you can scrap this one too if you want]
        Singapore – almost certain win
        Abu Dhabi – almost certain win
        Brazil – podium atleast get the point

    3. @Zubair I don’t think that making Hamilton be a “if” man is what you want for him. Saying that “IF” that would have happened or this wouldn’t has a value of exactly 0, because that can be said of all the drivers, they all had their advantages and weaknesses. Vettel and Alonso also had their “IFs”.

      1. @zubair380 Just so you know, I don’t mind LH…can’t say I’m a fan but I truly don’t mind seeing him succeed either…I’m indifferent to him so don’t take my opinion as running him down or ‘grasping at straws.’ I just have my doubts about his mental abilities when the pressure is at it’s greatest, and I am also always mindful of all drivers that there is a good chance they are learning as we speak and are works in progress because they are human. I think an example of LH learning has perhaps been demonstrated by the fact, as you point out, that he did much better this year than last and the car and some team errors let him down.

        I just think that he HAD to, because he made some mistakes last year that would never do for a WDC run in any year. And Button outshone him as a result. And he couldn’t let that happen again this year. So good on him for seeming to straighten things out for himself, and I hope we see only more and more of a more mature LH that is focused on the job at hand.

        I don’t think the off-track stuff is irrelevant, especially to a team like Mac who seems to be very conservative and clean cut in their demeanour. There is no way you will convince me that the sponsors, the money people on the team, were fine hearing LH admit that off-track distractions last year cost him on Sundays. There’s no way you will convince me that those tweets this year would also not bother the same money people, and could be looked at as a sign that not everyone was on the same page in terms of style and team philosophy. And he is no longer on the team. But nobody said he is or has to be perfect, and others have shown their imperfections too.

        But the fact remains he did tweet information that by all accounts the team was unimpressed with, and LH had to have a reason why he thought that was ok to do. The best I can come up with is he thought he had to defend his driving by showing his perfomance, relative to the data he revealed, showed it was not his fault, or that it made him better than the car, or better than Button. Whatever it was that made him tweet what he did. That was his priority at that moment. And I tie it in with him striving to ensure JB didn’t outshine him again this year, because he sure let him last year.

        It was obviously time for him to go. And he is gone. In spite of his ‘perfection’ as you call it. You don’t do what he did last year, and then do the tweet this year, if you are 100% focused on the team and it’s ways and philosophies and those of the sponsors, which is why he is paid the big bucks…by them. They’re the boss.

        I think you present a good case as to why there is a very strong possibility he would have won the WDC this year without all the unreliability, and team mistakes he had to endure. We’ll never know and the list of his bad luck incidents throughout the year don’t speak to any guarantee as to how he would have done with the pressure at it’s greatest and assuming the car was not the weak link. Not without then acknowledging that his fights would have been different, the numbers would have been different for everyone, the whole shooting match would have had a different face if you assume that if we can erase LH’s misfortune, and even if we leave everyone else’s season alone and don’t allow them the same luxury of erasing their misfortunes, LH would have changed everyone’s points structure, and been fighting with more on the line with more top drivers more often which would have presented different challenges. His race performances as we saw them were one thing. But put him in the higher pressure situations that can only come from actually having a WDC shot with 3 races to go and it is a different kettle of fish. you could be right and he might have handled it just fine. We know he physically can drive the car extremely well as shown by his performances this year. But mentally? I am not convinced he’s been 100% mentally focused these last few years, and too bad he didn’t get the chance to prove me wrong. I’d have no problem seeing him in a top car that’s reliable, taking the mental game to SV and FA and anyone else.

        And now we will get to see how he does in unknown territory at a non-top 3 team without the family that raised him and all the data they have on him. Although I’m sure Merc can supply some data since he has been using their engines all along. It’s going to be a blast to see how he does. I like to think he has a great chance at a fresh start on a new team and that it will be great for him and for Merc, for F1 and it’s fans. Be great to see how Nico does too.

  7. At the risk of stating the obvious, the reality is that reliability is part of the game. If your car is quick, but the quickness comes in part because you have scrimped here and there in the quality or durability of parts to save weight or to accomodate your design or what have you, then come the end of the day the costs of said pace can be detrimental. In hindsight, which of course is much easier to speak to, they may have been better off with a slightly slower, but much more durable car, ala FA’s Ferrari. But of course the goal is always to be the fastest, and the most reliable, and have the best pit crew etc etc. It all has to come together. And even when it all comes together well, another team can be just as good and have just a titch more whatever, and end up prevailing. That’s the game.

    But I agree, it is the mistakes that they will regret the most. Unreliability for the sake of pace is one thing, but squandering points through much more controllable aspects of the game for sure must be hard to take.

    I’m not convinced LH left because of Mac’s unreliability or mistakes…I think it goes deeper than that and had more to do with personalities and motivations and LH needing to leave the nest. After all, Mac, in spite of their issues, is still a top team with top potential every year, and strictly on that alone one could argue (and many have) LH should have stayed. If Mac has their issues to tackle, certainly Merc has much bigger ones. They still have to break into the top 3, and then prove themselves reliable and efficient and as mistake free as possible when the pressure is at it’s greatest. It’s far from just being about having a fast car.

  8. Look at Jenson! 82 laps spent at P14! That mid season slump was all down here I feel.

    1. You can thank Kovalainen for that I think!

  9. Bob (@bobthevulcan)
    18th December 2012, 19:29

    With Hamilton’s mechanical failures, McLaren lost what was almost certain to be 50 points (Singapore, Abu Dhabi), and with Button’s fuel pick-up glitch at Monza, a further 18. Those 68 points would have been invaluable in both championships, drivers’ and constructors’. The margin grows if one includes the positions and points lost through all the slow pit-stops, and under-fueling Hamilton in Spain.

    Having the fastest car means little if the driver is unable to cross the finish line. McLaren should have learnt that lesson in 2004 and 2005, and they’ve certainly learnt it the hard way once again this season, by wasting their best chance at the title in recent years. Having the fastest car means little if the team squanders golden opportunities with botched pit-stops and operational errors, basic mistakes that a team of McLaren’s caliber really shouldn’t be making so often.

    More optimistically, the pace of the MP4-27 has been, reliability issues aside, generally excellent. To their credit, the team have largely rectified those jarring issues, and have a good platform to build on for 2013. They’ll likely get another good shot at the titles next year, and as a McLaren fan, I do hope they don’t shoot themselves in the foot once again.

    1. @bob

      Having the fastest car means little if the driver is unable to cross the finish line. McLaren should have learnt that lesson in 2004

      Mclaren wasn’t even close to being the fastest car in 2004 though. It was the fastest car, maybe after Ferrari, BAR, Renault and Williams. Then it was the fastest car. :P

      1. Bob (@bobthevulcan)
        18th December 2012, 20:09

        @kingshark – I included 2004 specifically because the car did nothing but fall apart for the first few races. The oft-quoted fact illustrating the extent of this is that by that point in the season, Raikkonen had scored only 1 point to Schumacher’s 70. McLaren had this graphic demonstration of how unreliability could derail their season, yet failed to learn from this in 2005, and repeated it this year.

      2. Ferrari was so fast that at one race, they made 4 stops to Renault’s 3 in order to win the race.

    2. Maybe their caliber really isnt that high anymore. Maybe they are not the top team they are thought to be. Only one driver’s title in a decade, only one constructor’s title in 20 years. These are statistics of a middle caliber team, long past its prime, like Williams.

      The only difference between Mclaren and Williams is that Mclaren manages to win races in almost every season. But apart from that, they dont have anything remarkable to show. They are the most overrated team in F1.

      1. Bob (@bobthevulcan)
        18th December 2012, 21:07

        Statistics alone don’t tell the full story. Even though they’ve had a a title drought, McLaren have, in that time, almost always been in contention for race wins, and to an extent, championships. For the past 15 years, they’ve consistently finished within the Top 3 constructors (with the exceptions of 2007, which they could have won had they not been excluded after Spygate, and 2004, their only truly dismal season in recent years), something unattainable by a team of merely “middle caliber”. Williams have been out of the Top 3 since 2004.

        It is generally agreed that this year’s car, though unreliable, had the best pace. They are considered frontrunners because they have, and have the potential to, lead races and championships; though granted, they haven’t done as well converting these into results. “Overrated”? While I respect your view, I disagree. “Underperforming” is more like it.

        1. Ever since the Hakkinen days, Mclaren have still been championship contenders in 2003, 2005, 2007, 2008, 2010 and to some extend 2012. So yes, Williams is dying, but Mclaren, not really as much.

  10. Despite screwing up the beginning of the season, I think there was still a chance at Singapore of salvaging the driver’s championship. Obviously, more unreliability put paid to that.

  11. Mclaren can design a quick car but it’s unreliable and the team is incompetent. Ferrari have a competent team and bulletproof machinery, but the car just isn’t quick enough.

    Only together, with Mclaren’s speed and Ferrari’s reliability, can they defeat Red Bull.

    Join together. Now! :P

    1. Bob (@bobthevulcan)
      18th December 2012, 19:56

      Vodafone McLaren-Ferrari? It sounds so wrong, yet so right…

      1. I was thinking more something like;

        Vodafone Santander Scuderia Mclaren Ferrari F1 Team. Short for VSSMF F1.

  12. I struggle to recall a season where a team has screwed it up so badly. McLaren should have won both titles but in the end they weren’t even close to either. Possibly reminiscent of 2005 where they had comfortably the fastest car but finished well adrift of Alonso & Renault. But that season it was just the endless reliability issues, and as has been mentioned above there is a trade-off between reliability and pace. This season it was down to numerous team errors, and also just pure bad luck, Hamilton was taken out through no fault of his own in both Valencia and Spa, and suffered a puncture at Hockenheim. Throw in Hamilton’s departure, and it all added up to an annus horriblis. Can’t see them challenging for the championship next year, even if they produce a good enough car, the drivers aren’t good enough. Button is unbeatable on his day, and Perez has shown flashes of promise, but neither are consistent enough to sustain a challenge over an entire season.

    1. Kimi had three retirements in the 2005 car. That’s not really endless reliability problems in a 19 race season. I suppose in a typical season the top cars might have two mechanical DNF’s.

      Kimi’s retirements all came while leading races – in one case while leading the race with just a lap to the flag. That sort of thing may have caused the MP4-20 to become synonymous with mechanical failure in a way which three brakedowns from sixth place would not have done.

      1. In 2005 Räikkönen had several reliability-problems in qualifying that caused him to lose many positions on the grid. But there are seasons in which McLaren messed up even worse: 1999 is a good example, even though they managed to win the drivers’ title, but only thanks to Schumacher. The loss of the constructors’ title was humiliating. In 2001 McLaren got humiliated by Ferrari, but this was also more down to the team making mistakes – although their biggest mistake was to keep Coulthard after his disastrous 1999 season.

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