McLaren sunk to a new low in Canada when their record of 64 consecutive points-scoring races ended despite both cars reaching the finish – so with 12 races to go is there still time to save their season?
After being lapped by race winner Sebastian Vettel and finishing 12th behind team-mate Sergio Perez, Jenson Button admitted he had “never been so pleased to get out of a car”. He said it was like he had been racing “in a different category.”
McLaren are ruing their decision to go for a completely new pull-rod suspension concept on their 2013 car when their rivals simply continued to develop their 2012 machines, conscious that this season is the last before a major conceptual design change.
In fairness, it could have easily gone the other way - and by all accounts the numbers had suggested it would - but instead, they just posted their worst performance in years, failing to reach Q3 for the first time since Malaysia 2010 and failing to score points for the first time since Abu Dhabi 2009.
But more concerning is the fact it’s not a one-off.
They have gone from having the fastest car to being on a similar pace to Force India. At times, they are also competing with Toro Rosso.
The closest they have come to a podium so far this year was Button’s fifth place in China, but he was 23 seconds behind the third spot.
On current performance, it is entirely conceivable that they could go the entire year without a single podium – and the last time that happened was way back in 1980.
McLaren say a misalignment between wind tunnel figures and track times during the car development is the core of the problem – similar to the issues suffered but recovered from by Ferrari last term.
They claim to have already found a solution to that data problem, but it depends how far off the trail the figures led them as to whether it is even possible to recover the car, let alone how long it will take.
The biggest issue now, it seems, is that they are struggling to cope with the stiffer front wing tests introduced this year – and solving this problem will be the key to their recovery.
The front wing is so sensitive that bumps and braking or acceleration create rapid stall and re-attachment of airflow and that causes the front of the car to bounce up and down. Aside from making the front hard to handle, it has a knock-on effect all the way down the car.
McLaren have sensibly been filtering in a major upgrade package rather than introducing it all at once, conscious that each step needs to be proven without too many variables clouding the results.
Barcelona was the first – but the new wing could not be run because of a lack of legality checks.
More changes came in Monaco and Canada – but both of those tracks are both unconventional, so Silverstone will be the first real test for these upgrades.
But they’re not only suffering from a poor baseline car, they are also struggling to find a set-up direction that can get anything good out of the car they are stuck with.
In Button, they have a driver who is often praised for his ability to get the best out of a good car, but one that is also said to struggle to lead direction if things are not going so well.
He was all at sea in his lean years with Benetton and despite having more experience at Brawn in 2009 and subsequently at McLaren, he has been known to go wayward in set-up and struggle to pull the car back without turning to the other side of the garage to recover.
With Perez now in place as his team-mate instead of Lewis Hamilton, Button does not have such a strong shoulder to lean on, because despite clearly having plenty of raw pace and aggression, Perez lacks experience and is relatively unproven in terms of car development.
The final problem is that cracks have appeared in McLaren’s reputation as one of F1’s most professional teams and they seem to have lost their slick operational approach to going racing.
They were beset by pit stop problems early last season but it is the strategic mistakes that are coming too regularly from pit wall now that are the big problem – and Canada last weekend was a perfect example.
There, the team decided to set a pace for Button to race to on the medium tyre to make it last longer – despite not having enough detailed data to confidently predict what that time should be.
It turned out the predicted time was too slow, and Button could have been driving much faster.
To be fair, almost everyone misunderstood the potential of the medium tyre in warmer conditions than had been experienced in the rest of the weekend – but surely without enough data, and given Button’s track position, the best strategy would have been to go for it, at least for a few laps, and see how the tyres stood up.
After the race, Martin Whitmarsh admitted: “We got it wrong. He could have pushed into the points. It was one weekend where we didn’t get it right.”
Unfortunately, though, it seems to be one weekend of many.
Whether it’s an issue of too many cooks, or simply the wrong head chef, it is something that needs to be looked into carefully.
With the man responsible for this year’s car, Paddy Lowe, already on his way to Mercedes, team principal Martin Whitmarsh, managing director Jonathan Neale and sporting director Sam Michael must all be put under the microscope for the parts they play.
As team leader, Whitmarsh is in the crosshairs but he has openly said he is not considering resignation.
Might he be pushed? That will depend on the upcoming results. But if it is true that Ross Brawn is being edged out at Mercedes, then what better berth than the top spot at McLaren, or at least a spot somewhere in the team to help steer the ship back on course?
Although McLaren hasn’t actually won a constructors’ title for 15 years and has only won one driver’s title in 14 years, you have to go back to their three winless seasons in the mid-1990s, when the team ran with Peugeot and Ilmor engines, to genuinely say they were in trouble.
Then they recovered, like they surely will this time, but unless the upgrades do work miracles at Silverstone it does seem that something or someone within the team will have to change before they come good again.