McLaren mess-up on home soil

AFTER ALL the hyperbole and gung-ho jingoism before the race, the British Grand Prix was a train wreck for McLaren. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put things together again after the performance drop-off in Valencia. And in a race in which McLaren desperately needed not just to kickstart a recovery in their world championship fight but do sufficient to convince both drivers to stay beyond 2012, all they ended up doing was shooting themselves in the foot.

The unexpected resurgence of Ferrari came at the wrong time, and even the post-race argument over team orders at Red Bull was no consolation. Jenson Button was a podium contender until an error in the pits saw him sent back out without the front right wheel nut attached. Hamilton, having driven brilliantly and made the ultimately victorious Fernando Alonso look slow during a climb as high as second from 10th, had to go on an economy run after miscalculations on fuel consumption.

Both drivers’ misfortunes were signs of a disintegrating world championship campaign by one of the greatest teams in racing, after a dreadful weekend.

Hamilton, under his new management deal with Simon Fuller, has already been making noises about a possible move to Red Bull when his contract runs out at the end of next season, and though team principal Christian Horner firmly rejected that idea last week, the 2008 champion’s dissatisfaction has been no secret this year, the third in which McLaren’s aerodynamic performance has lagged behind Red Bull’s. Button is out of contract at the end of this year, and though McLaren will exercise an option to keep him for 2012, because they love his even temperament and technical feedback, he could be looking elsewhere for 2013, too. Hence the need for a good performance at the weekend.

Support for McLaren came last week when Hamilton’s father, Anthony, offered his son, whom he no longer manages, some sage advice.

“It’s just that something is missing and they’ll find it,” he told the BBC Sportsweek programme in reference to McLaren’s problems. “They’re going through a little bit of turmoil like you do in any relationship, but it is going to be a happy marriage if he stays. As a driver, Lewis has an opportunity to bring everybody together rather than let them fall apart.”

Whether his son’s new management agrees remains to be seen, but when you aren’t winning and your main rivals are, it’s not hard to see why the grass elsewhere can look greener.

“Both drivers did a great race,” McLaren’s Martin Whitmarsh said of Silverstone. “Jenson was driving very well, looking after his tyres, and could have challenged for the podium. It was a human error, and in fairness the team are just about the most consistent at pitstops, and have done a fantastic job.

“For Lewis it was a great race. We didn’t expect to be able to get through the traffic that quickly early on. The engineers calculate the fuel based on what they assume to be the race pace, and it was a bit quicker than we’d expected. It’s a massive challenge to be told to save fuel. It’s counter intuitive, you lose temperature in your tyres, your brakes, and it becomes very difficult. I think Lewis coped with that in a very disciplined and mature way.”

More than once in recent years Ferrari have had spectacular cock-ups, but they have bounced back, as they demonstrated at Silverstone. So will McLaren. The big teams always do. And even though Hamilton’s prospects elsewhere are decidedly limited, given Horner’s comments and the fact that Alonso would never allow Ferrari to employ the man he refers to only by surname, they need to do it quickly.

The 2011 title is far beyond reach; the focus has to be on getting the train out of the buffers and back on the rails for the German GP at Nürburgring in 12 days’ time. And making sure that, even though neither of them will be world champion this year, Hamilton and Button really can be in 2012 and beyond.

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