Things can only get better for McLaren
LONDON – Formula One mechanics like to work with music blaring out of the garages but the anthemic ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ is probably too close to the bone to feature on any McLaren playlist.
How much better things will get, after the worst ever season for the sport’s second most successful team, is one of the big questions ahead of the championship opener in Melbourne next week.
McLaren, winners of eight constructors’ titles and 12 drivers’ championships since their first in 1974, have not won a grand prix since 2012 and refrained at the launch of their new car from making any prediction about when the drought might end.
Last year, the first of an exclusive new partnership with Honda, they finished ninth of 10 teams and scored just 27 points from 19 races — 16 fewer than world champions Mercedes scored on the opening weekend in Australia.
They also collected record grid penalties due to frequent engine failures.
In Belgium alone, Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button were handed drops of 105 places between them — a meaningless but nonetheless eye-catching sanction on a grid made up of just 20 positions.
“I find it uncomfortable to watch these two great sportsmen struggling like that,” former McLaren driver Martin Brundle said of the two champions who won their titles with other teams.
“It’s just painful isn‘t it? I can’t imagine what it’s like for them. They’re hard-wired to win championships and races. We all need that McLaren.
“Imagine if McLaren was really on form and we were talking about Mercedes, Ferrari and McLaren. Then you’ve got a season on your hands, haven’t you?. We need it.”
Mercedes have won 32 of the last 38 races, with Ferrari the only other team to taste victory last year through Sebastian Vettel’s triple triumph.
If plenty of people are rooting for a McLaren revival — and their drivers are two of the most popular on Twitter with a combined 4.7 million followers — they need Honda to come up with a much more competitive power unit.
The initial signs have been mixed, with the car managing to complete a reasonable number of laps in eight days of pre-season testing even if fewer than teams they would never normally consider as rivals.
However, they also pointed more to a step than a leap, with the McLaren pair 14th and 15th fastest and completing 710 laps — about five times more than in eight days in 2015 but still a fraction of the 1,294 covered by Mercedes this time.
There should be another step up for Melbourne, with the car yet to run in full 2016 specification, and Racing Director Eric Boullier said “massive progress” had been made.
“We know where to go and it’s going to be a big boost to us for development,” he said.
The team have recruited Volkswagen motorsport head Jost Capito as chief executive, although he has yet to start at Woking, while Honda have replaced their engine boss Yasuhisa Arai with Yusuke Hasegawa.
Honda have made big changes to the power unit, increasing reliability, but more performance is needed if McLaren are to challenge for podiums as well as points.
Neither Button, 36, nor Alonso, 34, have time on their side.
The Briton, who won his championship with Brawn in 2009, contemplated calling it a day last season while there was talk of the more mercurial Alonso taking a sabbatical if the car showed no signs of real improvement over the winter.
The Spaniard has ruled that out, saying last month that his motivation was high, but the former Ferrari driver has sounded disillusioned about the direction the sport as a whole has taken.
“The cars are too slow, they’ve taken all the joy out of driving,” the double champion, who endured seven retirements in 18 races last year after missing Australia due to a testing crash, told Spanish broadcaster TVE this month.
Another season of being lapped by the Mercedes of triple champion Lewis Hamilton, a former McLaren team mate of both drivers, could tip him over the edge. “I somehow think Jenson can handle it better than Fernando,” said Brundle, who had a year at McLaren in 1994 before retiring two years later.
“Fernando has got the added misery of the Ferrari going so fast. The car he somehow navigated his way out of, took off the minute he got out of it,” added the Sky television pundit. “Is he going to be fighting with a Manor? Not really is he? Can he be? Can they be fighting a Manor in the early stages of the season? How are they going to cope with that?” -Reuters