Will Gray

Gray Matter: Can McLaren’s troubles make them stronger?

Will Gray

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McLaren have admitted they are "not satisfied" being runners-up to Red Bull this year but are refusing to be disheartened - so what went wrong and what gives them cause for optimism in the future?

McLaren started the year with strong ambitions of wrestling the title from Red Bull Racing only to suffer the disheartening experience of watching their champion rivals, particularly Sebastian Vettel, dominate in almost every race.

The points table shows McLaren are now comfortably the 'best of the rest', nestled in second place in the constructors' championship on 325 points, some 71 clear of third-placed Ferrari. But with 126 separating them from the championship leaders, the title is so far out of reach it would require three McLaren one-twos with three Red Bull no-scores to take the lead.

For a team with the heritage and ambitions of McLaren that simply won't do - but there are positives to be taken out of every bad situation.

THE OCTOPUS

Much fanfare was made of the new MP4-26 when it arrived, in pieces, in the centre of Berlin, with drivers Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button 'putting the final touches' to it in a choreographed PR performance.

The novel u-shaped sidepods were the focus, developed to aid flow to the rear end and maximise the downforce in the diffuser - but what they did not reveal was the 'octopus' on which their entire season's hopes were pinned.

And that, perhaps, was the biggest problem for McLaren this year.

The intricate 'octopus' exhaust system, which fed blown air into the diffuser in many different places, aimed to maximise the flow through that area and claw back huge portions of downforce that had been lost following the ban on the double diffuser.

Well before the racing had even begun, however, the design they had centred their plans around was discovered not to perform in real life in the same way it had done in simulations and testing. It was a design, in hindsight, that was far too complicated for even the cleverest and most innovative engineers to put into practice.

Despite efforts to make the best of the situation, the optimal solution was soon concluded to be to scrap the design altogether and copy the competitor instead - and soon McLaren developed and were successfully running a similar system to Red Bull.

That failed concept put them on the back foot early on in the title race - but their reaction to it did a lot to help save their season and the recovery showed their design team can adapt quickly when required.

INTERNAL COMPETITION

McLaren regularly play on the camaraderie between Button and Hamilton and it's not just PR, they actually seem to get on with each other. But when each gets inside the helmet the 'you scratch my back...' approach has been seen to quickly go out the window.

There have been several occasions this season when Button and Hamilton have had 'moments' to discuss behind closed doors - most notably in Canada, where a collision between the pair ended Hamilton's race - but the incident was glossed over by Button's subsequent victory.

The fact that the team has allowed internal competition between their two drivers and refused to favour Hamilton, as many had expected them to do when Button arrived last year, is commendable (and typical of McLaren) but that has cost them in the challenge for the drivers' title this season.

The McLaren drivers have shared wins, points and retirements pretty evenly and if the points had been more one-sided (a big if, admittedly) then Vettel could have been in for a much tougher battle up front and McLaren may not yet be speaking in such dismissive tones about 2011.

Yet that internal competition could have resulted in far worse consequences had the team not managed the relationship so well, and continuing to ensure controversial incidents are followed quickly by clean-the-air talks will keep everyone racing in the right direction.

TOO MANY MISTAKES

In a year when the once flaky teamwork at Red Bull Racing has stuck together like glue - on Vettel's side at least - McLaren's season has been a tale of too many mistakes.

The team spoke of a design team "more integrated than ever" when the car was launched, but while that may be true at the factory it seems not to have translated to the garage, with strategy plans often not rolling out as expected in qualifying and the races.

Both McLaren drivers have also retired from two races each, a terrible figure compared to Red Bull, who waited until Italy before their first retirement of the season came when Mark Webber crashed out.

Hamilton had a disastrous run of races mid-season, during which his confidence waned and his usually cool outward persona disintegrated, coming to a head when he publicly declared himself a victim of the stewards, having been called up and punished on several occasions, after colliding with Felipe Massa and Pastor Maldonado in Monaco.

That failure to roll with the punches early on proved costly for Hamilton's season - but the fact he admitted blame for colliding with Kamui Kobayashi in Belgium suggests he may have learned his lessons and come out stronger and more composed for the future.

WINNING WAYS

So, despite such a challenging season, McLaren still have eight front-row starts and four victories to show for their season so far.

Roll back to the MP4-26 debut test, and that seems a pretty acceptable haul considering there was not a smile to be seen from those in the silver-grey uniforms in Jerez.

A team like McLaren will never be happy with second best, even if that comes with a few consolation victories - but the lessons learned from this season could be their most important success.

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