Mclaren: The new Ferrari?

Such is the way of Formula One, any team’s prospects at the beginning of the season are entirely impossible to predict. You may start out in the back of the midfield and end up fighting for the championship, or you may start out with a dominant car and see your championship hopes fizzle out three rounds before the season’s end. However, there is even the chance that you may dominate the whole season and wrap up the championship before the last flyaway races, or you may find that your chances are nowhere at the beginning and the end. Such is the way of Formula One; nothing is for certain.

Had you asked the big wigs at Ferrari at the end of 2012 testing where they expected they would be fighting, you would have gotten a few mumbles about how things weren’t as they wanted at the moment, but they were confident of improvements throughout the season. After the first practice session in Australia last year, Ferrari’s concerns were magnified. Driving for survival was the only way to go.

Much to the shock of the paddock, through relentless determination and sheer, dogged desire for success, Ferrari helped Fernando Alonso stay in title contention until the very last lap of the season finale. Feats of this caliber come only a few times in an F1 generation, and while 2013 looks to be a much better season for the Maranello squad, prospects are not so positive for Mclaren.

It seems the lads at Woking are taking the performance hit they expected at the beginning of the season a bit harder than they, and of course the fans, expected. In a time where evolution was the path of many others, Mclaren’s relatively radical car design has out them on the back foot in terms of performance. The rationale behind such a deviation from their previous design was that they would have more room for development at the end of the season. The possibility of hitting a performance ceiling before season’s end was of real concern to everyone at Mclaren, thus their design took on a more revolutionary scope in a bid to give the team more season-long potential. Red Bull, Lotus and Ferrari may wish they had done the same come the end of the season.

This weekend, Jenson Button has revealed that throughout testing Mclaren was unable to compete with the times set by the likes of Red Bull, Mercedes, Lotus and Mclaren. Gone are the days where drivers and teams could hide behind phrases like “it is too early to tell” or “we don’t know what fuel levels the others are running”. Testing is over and now it is time to show what you really have up your sleeve.

All conclusions from the first two practice sessions in Australia point to a Mclaren that is off the pace significantly. Worrying parallels can be drawn to the woes Ferrari dealt with at this same point last year. Both Jenson Button and Sergio Perez finished practice outside the top ten, and with time and track time at an absolute premium, there is not a realistic chance of the team making up enough laptime to fight for the win.

More specifically, Mclaren’s problems can be traced to the car’s new pull-rod front suspension. Without getting too technical, what having pull-rod suspension does is move the intricate mechanical components deep down inside the body of the car, making any adjustment to the system a long and drawn-out process. As a result, the drivers don’t get as much time on track, reducing the amount of information gathered, thus increasing the chances of needing to spend even more time in the garage making even more slow adjustments. It is a painful cycle that Ferrari found a struggle to break.

Unlike Ferrari, however, Mclaren is renowned for developing a car over the course of a season. While Ferrari is no technical slouch, there is no denying the Woking squad’s ability to make simulator and wind-tunnel data correlate very well in the real world. The upgrade brought to Germany in the middle of 2012 is a testament to Mclaren’s ability to turn the performance of a car around when absolutely necessary. After this update, Mclaren won the next three races in succession, should have won the Singapore and Abu Dhabi GP’s and finally won again in Austin and Brazil. At a time when Red Bull was supposedly dominating the championship, Mclaren had the fastest car. Ferrari’s ability to keep the F2012 competitive against the likes of Red Bull as well will give Mclaren hope that they can do even better this year.

The balance between priorities will be the hot topic of 2013. Each and every team has to develop their 2013 cars to ensure they get the championship (and money) they need at the end of the season, while also pouring resources into their 2014 designs, which by all accounts, could just put a couple teams out of business completely. While Red Bull, Ferrari, Lotus and even Mercedes could be fighting it out at the front of the grid in the first half of the season, Mclaren will be slowly but steadily chipping away at any deficiencies in their car, until it is championship worthy. The mandatory factory shut-down during the summer break could hurt those teams that are nearing the dreaded “performance ceiling”. While they struggle to come up with updates and balance 2014 development, Mclaren could be perfectly poised to pounce on the situation. They will already have updates planned throughout the whole season. Theirs should be more effective given the car’s all-important “potential” and that means they could really surprise.

Looking to the rest of the season, it is obviously too early to draw any conclusions about who will be the world champion, or who will even win the first race. What we know for certain, though, is that Mclaren are set to struggle at this first race at least. The team will have to lean on their famous ability to out-develop their rivals if they are to have a go for the championship. Such is the way of Formula One, however, they may not get a chance at all.

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