Mid-season review: McLaren gets a reality check
Motorsport Week continues its team-by-team mid-season review with McLaren, which ditched Honda in favour of Renault but has made only minor gains.
McLaren talked the talk but this year has had to walk the walk – and found the journey a struggle. Its malaise did not end with the departure of Honda and pre-2018 ambitions have been realigned amid frustrations with its recalcitrant MCL33. The late switch to Renault ultimately proved a hindrance while aerodynamic flaws – in effect creating a draggy package – left the team mired in the midfield. Race pace has been far stronger than qualifying speed but while it profited from rivals’ mistakes early on to score well, the situation has deteriorated during European phase of the campaign. Heads rolled, and then further changes were undertaken, with the high-profile departure of Eric Boullier coming after a sequence of lacklustre of events and reports of staff discontent. McLaren adopted a changed mea culpa thereafter as it accepted its previous statements had been overly optimistic, and expressed its belief that it faces a long, slow recovery back to respectability, echoing the viewpoint held by many long beforehand. The remainder of this year is surely about trying to limit the damage in the championship while working hard on correcting the weaknesses for 2019.
Fernando Alonso has raised a few eyebrows this year with some of his proclamations (that border on grandstanding sermons) but it has been another season of frustration, stymied by machinery that has restricted him to the lower points positions. The Triple Crown, now two-thirds complete, is surely the primary goal, but Formula 1 retains an allure for the Spaniard, who has usually found the limit of the MCL33. Alonso drove well to bag points early on, none more so than in Azerbaijan after dragging a car some thought was terminally damaged back to the pits, and holds a commanding 12-0 qualifying head-to-head advantage over Stoffel Vandoorne. A spin in France – during a dismal race for McLaren – and a scrappy time in Germany act as minor blots on the copybook for a driver who is surely destined never to return to the front-running positions his talent warrants.
The pure statistics make for grim reading for a driver whose prowess in junior single-seaters is becoming an ever-distant memory. Vandoorne has yet to out-qualify Alonso this year (though did come frustratingly close in Canada) and has contributed just eight points to McLaren’s tally of 52. In an extremely competitive midfield pack the differences are magnified, and Vandoorne too frequently has found himself on the negative side of the fence. A sub-par one-lap display leads to a disappointing grid spot, consigning him to an alternative strategy, and getting mired at the wrong end of the midfield train in race trim, his plight accentuated by the MCL33’s straight-line speed woes. A mysterious absence of downforce resulted in the British and German weekends being a write-off, and race pace in Hungary was a return to form – points were on the table before a gearbox failure. Vandoorne needs a strong few events after summer to prove his 2019 credentials.