Features - Year in Review
DECEMBER 9, 2001
The McLaren team last went a season without a win in 1996, their second year in partnership with Mercedes-Benz. This year the alliance won four races, but such had been the level of expectation prior to the start of the 17 race season that you might have been forgiven for thinking they'd again won nothing in 2001.
McLaren and Mercedes have exactingly high standards and this season was a bitter disappointment to both companies. Although their technical package wasn't up to Ferrari's F2001, it certainly wasn't as bad as it was made to look by a succession of frustrating technical failures. In a nutshell, they should have certainly won seven races, maybe more.
On the driver front Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard continued to provide the seasoned driver line-up, entering their sixth successive season as team-mates. Their hopes resting on well tested McLaren MP4/16 chassis which was powered an uprated Mercedes F0110K, 72-degree V10 reputedly developing around 800bhp. There were also significant changes to the engineering staff at the races designed to enhance the team's operational efficiency.
The evolutionary Mercedes V10 was probably 20bhp down on the Ferrari/BMW opposition and this was the cause of a degree of concern between McLaren and Ilmor Engineering behind the scenes. Ilmor's problems were also tragically exacerbated by the death of company co-founder Paul Morgan in a flying accident in the middle of the season.
But the chassis also had its problems. "We picked up an aerodynamic problem when we first tried to run the car at the pre-season Valencia test," said McLaren Managing Director Martin Whitmarsh, "and we were trying to analyze why were having some different results when we ran on the circuit to that which we would expect in the wind tunnel."
Nor did McLaren gain the performance advantage they'd been hoping for when traction control became permissible again as from the Spanish GP. "From Barcelona onwards we were disappointed and highly embarrassed by our performance in the area of launch control," said Whitmarsh.
It was David Coulthard who this year challenged strongly for the World Championship title, Mika Hakkinen's form fading after he was badly demoralized by a suspension breakage which pitched him into a high speed accident at Melbourne. Although he was unhurt, it certainly shook the Finn's personal equilibrium.
By contrast, Coulthard's whole approach this year was as lean and purposeful as his physique. He made precious few mistakes and generally drove with a consistency and determination which could have translated into a much stronger title challenge had the cars and engines been more reliable.
There is also the issue of how much momentum was taken out of McLaren's development program by technical director Adrian Newey's four months of negotiation to join the rival Jaguar team. Newey stayed put in the end, but even Ron Dennis the McLaren chairman conceded recently that the "Adrian thing" was a definite setback.
The McLaren-Mercedes partnership learned a great deal from 2002, although that learning process was not an enjoyable experience. Next year, with Michelin rubber, Kimi Raikkonen taking over alongside David Coulthard while Mika Hakkinen enjoys a sabbatical, plus a brand new chassis an all-new 90--degree Mercedes V10, things may be very different indeed. Both Ferrari and Williams know enough about the F1 business to appreciate that one discounts McLaren very much at one's peril.