Sport : F1

McLaren

27th February 2014, 08:37am

More than any other team, McLaren will be looking to make strides in 2014 having endured a difficult - some would say woeful - season last year. You have to go back a decade to the last time they finished so low in the constructors' standings but an altogether more sobering statistic was the 33-year gap between seasons without a solitary podium finish.

Back in 1980, McLaren's slump was so bad that title sponsor Marlboro brought Ron Dennis on board to try and turn things around. That he succeeded is borne out by the team's subsequent litany of achievement. However, it's been a while now since the Woking team have been World Champions and given the talent and resources at their disposal, it's an aberration - murmerings of which turned to intense speculation in January, when Dennis announced a "thorough and objective" team review.

Their last success remains the drivers' title Lewis Hamilton won in 2008, with Dennis himself standing down as Team Principal shortly afterwards. Since then, McLaren have, more often than not, been leading the pursuit of the dominant Red Bull team but the only time they appeared capable of mounting a challenge, in 2012, they let themselves down with a series of operational and reliability errors.

Hamilton promptly left for Mercedes, citing the desire for a 'new challenge' having been linked to them umbilically prior to that. It was seen as a step down for him and yet it was McLaren who ultimately had by far the more challenging 2013 season, thanks to an underperforming car, the MP4-28, which lacked downforce and usually left Jenson Button and newcomer Sergio Perez fighting for minor points positions.

Given the situation, there was plenty of sympathy for Perez when it was eventually announced that he would be departing after just one season to make way for team protégé Kevin Magnussen. Yet it could be argued that the hiring and firing of the Mexican was itself another example of the sort of muddle McLaren have an unhappy knack of getting themselves into. From the outside, the obvious question is whether the team's attention to minute detail and rigorous adherence to procedure are habits taken so far that they occasionally forget the big picture. It's a paradox that anyone fortunate enough to visit the McLaren Technology Centre (admittedly, about as impressive a statement of understanding the big picture as exists in F1) in recent times will surely have pondered. 'How can they build somewhere as stunning as this and then mess up the races as often as they do?'

Successor Martin Whitmarsh has shouldered much of the criticism for such failures and the review to be undertaken by Dennis (who has busied himself in recent years running McLaren's burgeoning road car operation) has led to speculation that his tenure is coming to an end. That remains to be seen but there's clearly a feeling that something must be done - McLaren cannot afford to finish fifth in the standings too many times.

The team that Dennis took over at the turn of the '80s was founded by Bruce McLaren in 1963 and had already won one constructors' title (in 1974) and two drivers' titles (with Emerson Fittipaldi in '74 and James Hunt two years later). But McLaren's strike rate subsequently became more impressive, particularly during a golden era between 1984 and 1991, when they plundered seven Drivers' and six Constructors' Championships with all-time F1 greats Niki Lauda, Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. After a relatively fallow period in the mid-1990s, they then struck back with Mercedes power and Mika Hakkinen in 1998-99.

The team now sit behind only Ferrari in terms of race victories (182) and pole positions (155) in F1. Yet, amazingly, despite achieving more than 50 further wins in the 21st century and invariably being there or thereabouts, McLaren only have Hamilton's solitary title success to speak of - and even that almost eluded them. A wait of 15 years and counting for another constructors' title is a burden that clearly overshadows the team.

How much longer must they wait? On the face of it, McLaren seem better placed than most to react to the major technical changes coming this season but they weren't exactly quick off the mark the last time F1 underwent such an upheaval in 2009. Consider also the fact that their association with Mercedes-Benz, which stretches back to 1996, also comes to an end this year - one which sees a biggest powertrain overhaul for a generation. The immediate impression, therefore, is of a team marking time until 2015 and the return of Honda, who will supply them and them alone.

They would deny it, of course (and with good reason: McLaren's 2014 preparations would have been long underway prior to the re-establishment of their links with the Japanese manufacturer) but almost as soon as the deal with Honda was announced, there was a feeling that here was a turn of events that had a spark of inspiration, magic even, about it. And if that doesn't sound very McLaren-like, then it's worth stressing that detail and procedure are not the be-all and end-all; Dennis might have personally overseen the design of the screws that hold together the lifts at the MTC but pride of place goes to an array of historic machinery that leaves the visitor in no doubt about their belief in the sorts of things that cannot be quantified.

McLaren will be looking to hit back this season, when Button is joined by the (in Whitmarsh's estimation) "lightning quick" Magnussen. And yet, even now, it's 2015 to which attentions are inevitably being drawn. From McLaren-Mercedes, a partnership which ultimately promised more than it delivered, to McLaren-Honda, the most successful partnership in their history: can McLaren make the transition whilst simultaneously improving their competitiveness? Will they continue to make life difficult for themselves? And what changes might Dennis deliver?

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