DECEMBER 25, 2003
Review of the Year: 3rd - West McLaren Mercedes
McLaren came third in the Constructors' Championship in 2003, narrowly outscored in the end by Williams-BMW but on the race tracks the difference between the two teams was often much more than the results ultimately suggested. McLaren made better use of its opportunities and so came out looking good but when all is said and done the car was not as good as it should have been. This is not perhaps a great surprise given that the MP4-17D was, in essence, an old car tarted-up for 2003.
The intention had been to bring the new MP4-18 in early in the year but as the year went on the date slipped backwards from the start of the European season and finally the whole idea was thrown in the bin and the MP4-18 was re-engineered to become the MP4-19, which started running in the autumn. This set some impressive times and there are some in F1 who have started to spout forth that McLaren will be the team to beat in 2004. Perhaps it is wisest to remember that none of the other big teams have run their new cars yet and the true competitiveness of the McLaren should not judged until then.
McLaren should, however, be very well-prepared for the 2004 season but then again that was also the case in 2003 when McLaren arrived in Melbourne with 16,000km of testing having been completed over the winter. The cars were very competitive and both Kimi Raikkonen and David Coulthard ran strongly in the race in Albert Park and in the end Coulthard was able to score a victory because he made fewer mistakes than all of his adversaries. In Malaysia Raikkonen won but there was still an element of uncertainty as poor tire choices by Ferrari had blunted the Italian team's challenge - and Williams was still not really ready. In Brazil Coulthard deserved to win. He kept his car on the island when everyone else was falling off but the timing of the red flag that stopped the race, and the countback system employed, meant that Giancarlo Fisichella was credited with a most bizarre victory. It was not fair but there was nothing that McLaren could do about it. Coulthard was hit hard by that and took a while to get over it. Life, it seemed, was just not fair.
The prototype MP4-18 ran for the first time at Paul Ricard in the week between the Austrian and Monaco Grands Prix but there followed two big crashes and then the car failed an FIA side-impact test. Things were not going well.
Many observers feel that the team then made a major strategic error and pursued the development of the MP4-18 when more work should have been done on the MP4-17D. The MP4-18 was probably a quicker car but it never worked for very long. It is easy to say that with hindsight but the scale of the problem does not seem to have been recognized until too late. And by then the race team was complaining that the MP4-17D had dropped off the pace because all the development work was going into the wrong car.
Raikkonen retired while in the lead of the European Grand Prix at the Nurburgring but after that the team was not really in the hunt although Ferrari's struggles with tires and Williams's ability to trip over itself gave McLaren the opportunity to stay in the picture. Raikkonen ended up as Michael Schumacher's challenger for the World title but he never had much of a chance in Suzuka. Kimi did however carve himself out a place as the major challenger to grab Schumacher's crown one day. He was expected to outpace Coulthard in 2003 and he did that quite dramatically, aided by the fact that David took a long time to recover from Brazil and by the fact that the Scotsman absolutely hated the one lap qualifying regulations and struggled to adapt. David still raced exceptionally well but starting so far back on the grid was a huge disadvantage.
Raikkonen has now had three seasons of Formula 1 and he is going to continue to improve but his ultimate success in F1 in the short term is largely going to depend on whether or not McLaren and Mercedes can give him the machinery he needs to win. The worrying thing for Kimi is that it has been several years since Mercedes produced an engine which was right up with the best in F1.
There were changes up at Ilmor, which is now known as Mercedes-Ilmor, and is run by Mercedes-Benz executive Hans-Ulrich Maik. Mario Illien remains the technical director but he now has input from former BMW engineer Dr. Werner Laurenz, who is now director of engineering. These relationships did not gel immediately and for a time in the Spring there was talk of Illien moving elsewhere.
In the midseason Coulthard faced further disruption as the team tried to figure out what to do in 2004. A deal was in the pipeline with Juan Pablo Montoya for 2005 and 2006 and there was a lot of effort expended to try to get Montoya into the team in 2004. When it became clear that this was not going to be possible there were factions at Woking arguing that Coulthard should be dropped and that Alexander Wurz should take over for a year before Montoya arrives. None of this helped DC. When the news came that Montoya was signed for 2005 and 2006 David knew he was out but he now intends to show the world that the team has made a big mistake. The combination of Raikkonen and Montoya is an interesting one and watching the two men battling for supremacy at McLaren will be fun to watch. One way or the other one reputation will be made and the other will be broken.
McLaren had the added disruption of waiting for the completion of the Technology Centre (formerly known as Paragon) which was supposed to be up and running by August. The team said that the delays did not affect its performance but disruption of all kinds tends to have an influence on any top F1 team these days.
One gets the impression, despite denials to the contrary, that one of the team's biggest problems is the lack of focus that was once there. Martin Whitmarsh runs the team efficiently and effectively but Ron Dennis has a million things on his plate as the boss of the McLaren group, with the new SLR road car and all the politics that has been going on in F1 in recent years. One indication of this came in Canada where Dennis was caught out by Minardi team boss Paul Stoddart in one of the press conferences. It was very clear that Stoddart was extremely well-prepared to do battle but that the McLaren boss had not done all of his homework.
There is also the very odd way in which the team operates on a commercial level. Dennis has set himself up as Formula 1's Mr Morality but the team seems to be forever trying to lure away the sponsors of other teams. Jaguar was less than impressed to learn that McLaren had taken a punt at HSBC and Sauber's backer Credit Suisse was positively shocked.
These things do not add up in a team which is supposed to be a lean but not so mean winning machine...
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