Features - 2011 Grand Prix Review

JANUARY 24, 2012

Vodafone McLaren Mercedes


Jenson Button, Japanese GP 2011
© The Cahier Archive

If you had told McLaren in February that Jenson Button would finish runner-up in the drivers' championship and that they would score six victories, they would probably have taken that.

Pos 2: McLaren

Lewis Hamilton (GB); Jenson Button (GB)

Points: 497; Best finish: 1st (China, Canada, Germany, Hungary, Japan, Abu Dhabi)

If you had told McLaren in February that Jenson Button would finish runner-up in the drivers' championship and that they would score six victories, they would probably have taken that.

"We exist to win," is a mantra from early in the Ron Dennis era but, in pre-season testing they couldn't do 10 laps!

"It was the worst pre-season testing I can remember since the first active ride Williams at Rio in 1988!" says technical director paddy Lowe, with feeling.

"We had some radical ideas around the exhaust exits. It was dubbed 'The Octopus' by the media but in fact was nothing like an octopus and actually came out into a long slot that blew to the edge of the floor in the running board area."

Strangely enough though, it was not the trick stuff that was causing the team problems.

"There was general exhaust unreliability," Lowe explains. "The basic bundle, the collector, was staggeringly unreliable. Even our baseline 'keep you running' system was worse than the radical new one!

"At the pre-season tests you were so glad when the end of the day came and you could regroup. Then by 11am next day, the car would come in with shrapnel all over the place again. And it was every day, every test. It's easy to blame the radical stuff, but it wasn't."

With the Melbourne season-opener fast approaching, the team looked as if it was staring at a repeat of 2009 but an 11th hour change of direction, with a new tail pipe and fixes to the primaries fixed the problems.

"We suddenly got reliability and a good chunk of the performance we'd seen in the tunnel," Lowe says. It was enough for Lewis Hamilton to finish second to Vettel and a huge relief to everyone at Woking.

In fact, McLaren had done the best interpretation of Red Bull's exhaust blown diffuser concept and seemed quite put out when the FIA somewhat oddly took mid season steps to reduce its effectiveness.

"The FIA, not driven by them I suspect," Lowe says, "suddenly made a stricter interpretation that said moving parts in the engine creating downforce was illegal.

"It was an exact parallel to what was said of active suspension (in 1993), where the piston of the suspension was the medium and deemed illegal.

"That was also done mid-season but the irony is that those cars were extremely exhaust blown. We said to the court then, 'What about the engines?' But nothing was said. We'd waited 18 years and they changed their minds. I'm sure Charlie (Whiting) found it very painful and regretted ever going in that direction...

"The problem with exhaust blowing has always been the on/off throttle imbalance. One of the reasons the Williams active car (FW14B of '92) was so good was that we could use the active ride to manage the on/off balance. We could change ride height. That's why all the work started on off-throttle modes.

"When the FIA came to clamp down on it, all the engine manufacturers had each followed different philosophies. The FIA worked very hard but it was an insoluble problem." The upshot, of course, was that post-Silverstone everything reverted back for the remainder of the season.

Lowe says that the new DRS concept was fascinating from an engineering perspective.

"There were two pathways the teams took. Mercedes pioneered a large DRS difference but we came at it from a different direction, valuing race performance with more circuits being maximum downforce tracks."

A distinctive feature of McLaren's MP4-26 was its U-shaped sidepod, which was done for airflow reasons and presented a challenge in passing the crash test.

Button found the MP4-26 much easier to drive than the previous car, with the ability to sit low in it.

"He also had more confidence in it, particularly at the rear. He's a different driver to Lewis. He needs to feel the car right before putting in throttle, rather than dealing with it. Several times he said this was the best car he'd ever driven."

Like everyone, McLaren was concerned about Pirelli wear in pre-season testing and in what you could do with set-up to reduce it. The team was still quite surprised to find it less of a problem then expected when the season began.

"In Spain we were nearly a second off in qualifying but almost won the race with Lewis," Lowe says. "On Saturday night we had been about to slit our wrists. And for the first time everyone thought we were seeing Seb's genuine pace, whereas before it was assumed he had a lot in hand. That was a good feeling.

Lowe admits that, operationally, McLaren did not have a vintage year.

"Our 'did not score' count was too high," he says, "events in which we didn't get the points that the car had the pace to deliver. Red Bull's count was extraordinarily low. When they fitted the wrong tyres to Seb at Monaco it became the masterstroke -- very irritating!

"Jenson also suffered three mechanical issues - an oil cooler in Germany, a wheel at Silverstone and the clutch at Monza.

"Lewis had a frustrating time. Some of it was mistakes on our side, some on his. Monaco was the classic. We picked a Q3 strategy that could have been a blinding decision but backfired. And he compounded it by missing the chicane and losing the lap. That typified his season.

There was a bit of that on Jenson's side as well. But he gained confidence, enjoyed his driving and went beyond the classic Jenson people describe in terms of race craft.

"Some of the moves he pulled were just fantastic. There was an extraordinary overtaking count at Spa and in Canada. Lewis had been the king of overtaking for a while and here was Jenson doing it too."

For the first time in his career, in fact, Hamilton was bettered by a man in the same car. Button finished championship runner-up while Lewis was fifth, 43 points adrift.

At times Hamilton appeared distracted and perhaps a combination of frustration at trying to take on Vettel in a superior Red Bull and personal issues got on top of him. From mid-season on he clearly wanted to press the 'reset' button. Expect him to be stronger in 2012, machinery willing.