Tuesday, October 18, 2005

So near, so far: the McLaren revival

So near, so far: the McLaren revival

This time last year McLaren found themselves languishing in fifth place in the final championship standings after one of the worst seasons in the team’s long and illustrious history. Twelve months on they are runners up, having pushed Renault all the way and taken the title down to the wire at the final round in China.

Of course, nobody ever got rich betting against McLaren's long-term prospects, but it was a remarkable recovery, even by the team’s own high standards. No one can argue that Fernando Alonso and Renault have thoroughly deserved their 2005 success, but what alarmed them and the rest of the paddock was the way that McLaren bounced back in the second half of the season, having lost out on victory in five of the first seven races.

In the closing half of the season, McLaren clearly possessed a sizeable performance advantage at most circuits - they won six races in a row prior to China - and if the team had been spared even a fraction of the bad luck that dogged their campaign then they may well have been trying to find space for both championship trophies. To illustrate the scale of their comeback, they entered the final round in Shanghai just two points shy of Renault - 174 points to 176 - despite having taken just 63 in the first half of the year, finishing it on 182.

All that said, while McLaren are never a team happy to settle for second, the season has left awkward questions to be answered before next year. First and foremost - will Mercedes be able to solve the mechanical problems that saw the luckless Kimi Raikkonen forced to take grid penalties or start from the pits on no fewer than four occasions after engine changes. And some in the paddock have even wondered whether Juan Pablo Montoya was the right choice for the team. He's had a great second half of the season - seeming, if anything, to have a slight pace advantage over Raikkonen - but a series of unforced errors, unfortunate crashes and the mysterious tennis injury that forced him to miss two races have all left some pundits questioning his temperament.

A flick through the history books produces plenty of other examples of McLaren's comebacks through the ages. Statistically, they are already the most successful team in Formula One history in terms of titles, with no fewer than eight constructors' and 11 drivers' championships. After falling from contention in the mid 1980s, the team were able to persuade Honda to shift its backing from Williams in 1988 - giving them access to what was by far the most competitive powerplant of the era, and allowing them to completely dominate the '88 season, with 15 victories out of 16 races. In the late 'nineties, after another period in the doldrums, McLaren poached Williams' brilliant chief designer, Adrian Newey, and joined with Mercedes in another winning technical partnership. The result was two drivers' titles for Mika Hakkinen and another constructors' championship.

We'll have to wait until next season to find out if we really are on the verge of a new age of McLaren dominance - but you can guarantee that Renault and the rest of the Formula One paddock will spend the winter worrying about it.

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