McLaren has all but admitted that its new MP4-26 contender is too radical for its own good, with the team forced to introduce an untested upgrade in order to regain some of the competitiveness it seems to have lost to its rivals.
The new car – which featured L-shaped radiator intakes and an unusual exhaust in its launch configuration – has been well off the pace and unreliable in pre-season testing, with both Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button complaining that the car lacks downforce.
To try and regain more competitiveness, the team has shelved its radical exhaust configuration and opted for a “simpler” solution, which team boss Martin Whitmarsh reckons will give it back about a second per lap to its main rivals as it hopes to be a serious contender for the World Championship.
“I’m not satisfied with where the car was on reliability or performance in the test,” Whitmarsh said during a Vodafone-arranged phone-in press conference.
“We have made some fairly dramatic changes, and those changes we will see in Australia. There’s some risk in that, but I think it was the right thing to do and we’re hopeful that that risk comes off and the car is a lot more competitive in Australia.”
The changes have extended to a host of other upgrades, including a new floor.
“There are a lot of other bits and pieces, but they’re the clear and obvious ones that people will see in Australia,” he added.
“[The exhaust] is a simpler design than we’ve had before. think the exhaust systems have become quite extreme on quite a lot of the cars. I think we in particular had very extreme solutions.”
Whatever the case, McLaren’s solutions have so far failed to deliver, and prompted many to write off the team’s chances heading into the new season.
But Whitmarsh – understandably – thinks otherwise, and believes that his team can continue to take the fight to Red Bull and Ferrari.
“I believe that the car isn’t fundamentally a bad car. I believe that we need to unlock the exhaust-blowing potential,” he continued.
“We had some very creative ideas, some of which could have worked spectacularly well. But if they were to work spectacularly well then they had to be sufficiently durable to be raceable, and frankly some of our solutions weren’t, and that’s why I think we had to go back on it. But I think in doing so we found some interesting performance.”
The team’s decision to blood these new parts without any pre-season testing has evident risks, but Whitmarsh believes that the performance gain will be evident.
“I think it will still be a challenging weekend [in Australia], but I’m hopeful that we’ll put on more than a second in performance,” he added.
“That’s not what you like to do after a test like that, but I think it’s the right decision, and if it wasn’t then I’ll have to put my hand up.”
He would not be drawn on the team’s prospects or on where it may sit in the pecking order at Melbourne and beyond.
“I can’t make any predictions, but you always have the target of going to win races,” he concluded. “not predicting we’re going to win it, I’m saying we’re aiming to win it.”
Meanwhile, there are reports that Lewis Hamilton is seemingly frustrated with the team’s pre-season build-up, and has used the British press to sound out his concerns, restating his desire to win world championships “time after time”.
After making a spectacular debut in 2007 – losing the World Championship by a single point – Lewis became the sport’s then-youngest-ever champion the following year until the record was broken by Sebastian Vettel last year.
But since this achievement, the Briton has found himself unable to achieve similar feats. He endured a difficult title defence in 2009 and then in 2010 – while a championship contender – he was largely an outsider in the race that was ultimately won by Vettel.
But with comments no doubt designed to encourage his Woking-based team, the 26-year-old told his country’s Sunday newspapers that he wanted to win more championship titles.
“I want to be one of the most successful F1 drivers of this generation so I do want to win more world championships and I think you have to continue winning and prove yourself time after time for people to really know that you are the best … I have a lot more to do.”
To many observers, the team’s pre-season troubles seem to mirror that of the 2009 season, when the car started well off-the-pace but managed to regain competitiveness with significant upgrades. Ultimately these came too late in the year for him to mount a challenge to his championship defence, and he will no doubt be hoping that the team can recover the lost ground more quickly in 2011.
Lewis’ comments have prompted certain sections of the tabloid media to suggest that Hamilton might be – and could be thinking this as well – better off in a rival outfit, leading them to suggest that he would be an ideal replacement at Red Bull Racing should Mark Webber’s contract not be renewed for 2012.
But Hamilton has – vocally at least – declared his commitment to the team with whom he has had a long relationship in the formative years of his career.
“[McLaren is] an incredible team. I haven’t been to other factories, but McLaren have some of the greatest people I have ever met in the team,” he told the Observer.
“It is a great place to go to work and I feel privileged to be part of the team. They are fighters and I am a fighter.”