Spanish Grand Prix: Despite Mclaren’s upgrade, Fernando Alonso lapped by Max Verstappen with same engines, damaged car

Back in 2004, Mclaren's (back then, known as Mclaren-Mercedes) silver cars flew around tracks, occasionally giving Ferrari a run for their money in an era where Ferrari was otherwise unbeatable. Their rich heritage in the sport was undeniable — Formula 1 greats like Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost and Mika Hakkinen won championships with the team. When Mclaren prodigy Lewis Hamilton burst onto the scene in 2007 with a record-breaking rookie year, the team’s future seemed to be secure.

A decade down the line, plenty has changed. For one, the sleek silver car is now coloured papaya orange. Instead of setting the pace at the front of the grid, Mclaren is scrambling to keep up. Their last victory was in 2012 (six long years ago) and their glorious past had been overshadowed by a not-so-glorious present, a result of a painfully botched engine partnership with Honda (2015 - 2017). Capping a string of shambolic seasons, the team finished the 2017 season in a dismal 9th place. Mclaren’s racing director Éric Boullier had described this period as a "proper disaster" for the team's credibility.

Fernando Alonso gestures during a media conversation. AP

Fernando Alonso gestures during a media conversation. AP

Time is running out for the team — too many fruitless years were invested in trying to salvage the Honda partnership, when it was seemingly doomed from the start. At the end of the 2017 season, Mclaren finally booted out Honda and signed with Renault as their engine supplier. The pressure is now on the team to make a quick turnaround — with plenty at stake. Apart from the loss of face and bad publicity, the tangible economic losses must be considered — from reduced share of earnings from the FIA to sponsors abandoning the team. Even more crucially, the team’s crowning asset — two-time World Champion Fernando Alonso — could well walk away if he does not see requisite progress.

Mclaren knows all this  and the team is focussed on making 2018 a year of resurrection. Said Boullier, “We know what we need to do — improve performance. We have a long way to go. We will keep bringing developments. It is not a magic package but about incrementally improving performance.” The switch to the Renault powered engine has helped clarify specific areas of improvement for the team. Referring to this, Alonso said, “Now on the power unit side we have the same engines as Red Bull. So it’s all on us, the chassis development, to close the gap.”

The team brought a massive upgrade package to Barcelona, seen as the most substantial of any car on the grid. The upgrade focused on the front of the car, notably including a new front nose design. The upgrade had early success in qualifying, with both drivers recording their best qualifying sessions of the season — including the team’s first Q3 appearance thanks to a spirited drive from Alonso. Qualifying has typically been a weak spot for the team, with qualifying pace being far below race pace — evident in the fact that the team typically finishes the race far above their qualifying positions. At the Spanish Grand Prix, Alonso’s spirited 8th place finish will leave the team with some questions — how did Max Verstappen, with a damaged car and the same engine, lap Alonso?

The drivers were optimistic about the progress. Shared Stoffel Vandoorne, “It’s a step forward. There is improvement in terms of how the car is handling. Every little bit will help move us forward in the mid field battle and unlock more potential.” Alonso agreed, telling the media that the upgrade is “making me happy” but also said that they had much ground to cover to the frontrunning teams. “The top six, they are in another league. We need to keep chasing and closing that gap race after race.”

That said, we believe the sheer fact that the new upgrade was delivered to the team four races late (in Spain instead of Australia) detracts from this limited success. To quote Alonso, “This car was supposed to be at the Australian Grand Prix package. But it's here in the Spanish Grand Prix. So that delay on the first improvement put us in a difficult position in the first couple of races.” In a sport like Formula 1 where change is a constant, such a ghastly delay is alarming. How can the team surge ahead of competition if they are still trying to catch up with their own timelines?

On track performance is one thing harnessing a winning mentality is completely another. Clearly, Mclaren is still far away from believing that it is a winning team. This was evident in Alonso’s statement that the team was hoping that the upgrade package of rival teams ‘do not deliver.’ While appreciating the honesty, it is worrying to think that Mclaren could be linking its own success to the failure of others.

Apart from on-track performance and attitude, the team has been dogged with other issues as well. When pointedly asked to describe these weaknesses, Boullier chose to be ambiguous, but indicated, “It is ideal to have strong leadership at every stage, group communication, efficiency and flexibility. If any of these points are believed to be missing, they must be addressed.”

Much chatter has engulfed the paddock about a possible restructure at Mclaren following the recent departure of chassis chief Tim Goss. Boullier was not spared either, with members of the press questioning his credentials to lead the team’s resurgence. He was forced to defend himself by citing examples of his past successes — given the delicate place that the team is at, nobody is safe and heads will roll.

The team is expecting more upgrades in the forthcoming races, promising new parts at every race and major upgrades in Austria and Canada. Although they voted against the new 2019 aero regulations, Boullier believes that it will help ensure that the “competitiveness of teams is closer, creating a level playing field.”

Irrespective of whether you are a fan of the team or not, it is hard to argue against the fact that a strong Mclaren is good for Formula 1. As an independent, former World Champion team with a strong history and legacy, it operates in a very different context than the works teams. In a sport where Ferrari and Mercedes are dominating not just the track but also the boardroom, Mclaren’s presence becomes even more critical. With Williams, the other independent world champion team down in the dumps, their role gets even more crucial. And if a strong Mclaren is the only way to keep Fernando Alonso in Formula 1, we guess that’s all that matters.

Updated Date: May 14, 2018 12:45 PM

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