What’s wrong at McLaren?

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Lewis Hamilton narrowly leads the Formula 1 World Championship after a win at Montreal, Canada 19 June 2010 (www.mclaren.com). Photo by Tristan Rayner

Force India has enjoyed a remarkable 2013 campaign to date. They led the Australian Grand Prix thanks to Adrian Sutil, while Paul Di Resta has also headed the pack for a time.

The Scot came within a whisker of a podium in Bahrain, though Lotus’ Romain Grosjean stole that away with a handful of laps to go.

And while the lack of a podium result is a glaring omission from their palmarès, a casual glance at the championship standings shows them currently outranking McLaren.

McLaren last finished sixth in the championship in 1981, when John Watson and Andrea de Cesaris raced for the team (if we discount the year it was excluded from the championship).

Last year, Force India scored 109 points on its way to seventh in the championship. It never looked a podium contender, with perhaps an exception for the Belgian Grand Prix, where the team has traditionally excelled.

So, what has led to the teams’ improvement this year?

On the fringes of the points last year, Force India was fighting ferociously with Sauber and Williams, both teams enjoyed stronger form than what they’ve demonstrated this time around. Sauber had four podium finishes, while Williams took top spot in Spain.

Force India needed do little more than hold station as those around them fell off the pace.

Further aiding their quest is that McLaren is having a less than stellar campaign. In fairness, it has been a dismal year for a team expected to be winning races and challenging for the title; which only adds shine to the achievement by those at Force India.

It potentially means six cars from last year, which would likely have been in front of Sutil and Di Resta, can now be realistically placed behind the pair. The team itself has made ground – of that there is little doubt – but it has also benefitted from the trials and tribulations of others.

It means Force India is the fastest Mercedes powered team; like they have proved on numerous occasions this year. And that raises loads of questions.

While the VJM06 is a fundamentally good car, it is a stretch to believe it has taken a significant leap to surpass McLaren.

Of course McLaren opted to change its suspension design, which many have labelled as radical, though, in reality is comparatively trivial (the Cooper T43, which followed the T23, was radical).

The suspension has also been altered, which has changed the aerodynamics, though McLaren employs very clever people, and it is unlikely that even such a change accounts for their drop in performance.

The real reason runs much deeper.

McLaren has claimed it has an aerodynamic correlation issue between the wind tunnel, its fluid dynamic software, straight line tests and what is actually happening out on track.

There was no correlation issue on the MP4-27, which was developed by the same people in the same facilities as the MP4-28 Jenson Button and Sergio Perez are racing this year, though, a ‘correlation issue’ is a lovely term, which could mean almost anything while saying even less.

So what could the real issue be?

In recent weeks McLaren has announced a new engine deal with Honda. This had been rumoured for some time and in the secretive world of Formula One, whispers of a new engine supplier are not going to sit well with the old one, particularly not if a team has recently fallen from factory backed to customer level.

Honda’s imminent arrival would have been news within McLaren for some time. Mercedes would have understood this and moved to protect its best interests. Mercedes wouldn’t really care if McLaren is competitive.

However there is less egg on face if Force India – which uses Mercedes engines of course – is competitive, and perhaps occasionally beats the factory team.

Force India is a team of comparatively little resource while Mercedes is not. Any Force India success can be treated as a blip on the radar, and a victory for Mercedes power. Success for McLaren, a team which is used to success, adds little to the brand (especially since it’s about to jump ship to Honda).

And while engines in Formula One are equal, there are some which are more equal than others. Mercedes, as the factory team, will be getting the best of the best.

The customer teams will perhaps be getting something close but one can imagine it not having quite the refinement of those in the back of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg’s car.

Extending that a touch, it’s not inescapable to imagine there are two levels of customer engines; one which would have historically gone to McLaren, and one which would have gone to Force India.

It makes one wonder: what would happen if Mercedes put Northampton on the box that once went to Woking?

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