Monday, December 26, 2005

F1: McLaren 2005 review: CLOSE BUT NO CIGAR 

Ron Dennis has never been much interested in finishing second, a position he considers ‘first of the losers’, and by that lofty standard McLaren’s season was a failure.

Objectively, however, this was McLaren’s best year since its title-winning campaigns with Mika Hakkinen in 1998 and 1999 as the Woking team came within an ace of winning both the drivers’ and constructors’ championships with the devastatingly effective MP4-20.

The conventional explanation for why it didn’t do so is the Mercedes engine failures that struck Kimi Raikkonen in practice at Magny-Cours, Silverstone, Monza and Suzuka, costing him 10 grid slots on each occasion.

But while those setbacks undoubtedly took some of the steam out of McLaren’s mid-season momentum, it’s worth noting that Raikkonen still salvaged 29 points out of a possible 40 from the races in question (a testament to the Finn’s indomitable fighting spirit as well as the car’s sheer pace).

The real damage to McLaren’s title hopes was done in the first four rounds, when the team did not have as a good a handle on the trade-offs required by the 2005 rules as arch-rival Renault.

Thus, at the flyaway races Raikkonen and team-mate Juan Pablo Montoya found they were unable to generate sufficient tyre temperature to unlock the full potential of the MP4-20 chassis during single-lap qualifying.

Some judicious tweaks to the front suspension package bore fruit at Imola, where Raikkonen was the class of the field in the early stages of the race and looked set to romp to his first victory of the year.

The ensuing driveshaft failure was therefore all the more galling.

Instead of making some inroads into its deficit to Renault, McLaren handed the Anglo-French team a fourth consecutive victory and put itself well and truly behind the eight-ball.

By the time everything finally came together in Barcelona, where Raikkonen took an emphatic win, he trailed Fernando Alonso by 29 points.

The Spaniard is simply too good to be given a head start like that, and he did not waste it.

Even when the McLaren was a class apart from the rest of the field – as was the case for the majority of the season – Alonso and Renault were always lurking, ready to scoop any crumbs from the table.

Some of these came courtesy of Montoya, who gifted Alonso crucial second places at Istanbul and Spa when he dropped the ball in the closing stages (with some assistance from Tiago Monteiro and Antonio Pizzonia) – much to Raikkonen’s chagrin.

JPM’s arrival at McLaren had journos and fans alike licking their lips in anticipation of an internecine rivalry of Senna/Prost proportions.

It didn’t quite work out that way, as Montoya’s season was derailed by a shoulder injury prior to round three in Bahrain.

The Colombian’s insistence that he sustained the injury while playing tennis prompted much mirth in the paddock, with wags suggesting it should be added to the list of proscribed sports in F1 drivers’ contracts!

But whatever the provenance of the injury, it had effects far beyond the two races Montoya missed while convalescing.

In retrospect, his return to the cockpit in Barcelona was premature – he spun during the race because he was unable to correct a routine slide with his normal alacrity – and the pain persisted for several months.

In the meantime he struggled to extract the maximum from a car that initially did not respond to his aggressive driving style.

Gradually, though, he learned to adapt his technique and the team evolved a set-up more to his liking.

From Silverstone onwards Montoya started to push Raikkonen harder and even outpace the man who was being hailed the fastest man in F1, and by the end of the year there wasn’t much to choose between them.

For his part, Raikkonen was blindingly quick almost everywhere, chalking up seven wins, five poles and – tellingly – 10 fastest laps.

On the debit side of the balance sheet, he arguably made more mistakes than Alonso, stalling on the grid in Melbourne and goofing his qualifying laps at Bahrain and Interlagos.

But those errors barely tarnished a dazzling canvas, highlighted by that mesmeric drive from the back of the grid at Suzuka.

Renault’s upturn in form in the final two races prompted a reassessment of the received wisdom that Adrian Newey’s MP4-20 was a fundamentally superior car to the R25.

Perhaps Renault had simply opted for a different compromise between performance and reliability in light of the two-race engine rule, and had the underlying pace all along?

According to this view, the true quality of the Renault was masked by the championship endgame, as Alonso’s commanding cushion allowed the team to play the percentages from Imola onwards.

There may be some truth in this, although McLaren’s initial inability to get the most out of the MP4-20 in single-lap qualifying was the main reason why Renault had it so easy in the first three races.

And it would be unwise to draw too many conclusions from a single race (China) where Renault clearly had the upper hand.

The bottom line was that McLaren had more weaknesses in its armoury than its Anglo-French rival, which executed near-perfectly all season long.

The fact that Raikkonen and the MP4-20 scooped most of the post-season baubles will have been a source of pride to Dennis, but little consolation for the loss of both titles – for there is no one in F1 who hates losing more.

Expect the team to fight back with a vengeance next year! Hopefully.....

McLaren’s season in a nutshell

High: Raikkonen's spine-tingling charge from the back of the grid to victory at Suzuka.

High: Montoya's ballsy pass of Alonso around the outside of Copse seconds after the start at Silverstone.

Low: Reliability. The driveshaft failure at Imola and the rash of engine blow-ups gave Kimi too much work to do to beat Alonso.

Low: Losing Adrian Newey to Red Bull. The McLaren high command put a brave face on it but they know the design genius’ departure will leave a big vacuum.

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