Back when I was 4 years old, I was introduced to Formula 1 by my father. He got me 3 VCR recordings of the sport. One was highlights of of the 1998 Belgian Grand Prix, one was a review of the 1992 F1 season named “Well Done Nigel” and the other was a compilation video named “Murray’s Magic Moment”. Although the 1998 Grand Prix images of the massive crash of the first lap, and Schumacher trying to punch David Coulthard stay with me, the other main things which stay with me is the dramatic Suzuka collisions between Senna and Prost, and Senna again miraculously keeping Nigel Mansell behind him in the 1992 Monaco Grand Prix. Then when I was 11, McLaren were at the front again, with a young, fresh British driver who would capture my imagination like no other, Lewis Hamilton, you may have heard of him. The point I’m trying to make is apart from the small time when I supported Jordan, my favourite team has been and always will be McLaren. Growing up, they were always creating the most dramatic, exciting moments at the front of the sport, from Kimi Raikoneon’s storming drive at the 2005 Japanese Grand Prix to snatch the lead on the last lap, to Hamilton’s dramatic championship win, to Button’s crazy race in the 2011 Canadian Grand Prix. These facts to me makes it hurt more that after 7 races, McLaren find themselves bottom of the constructors, with a slow, unreliable car.
So how did the once great dominators of the sport become the laughing stock of the pit lane? It would easy to blame everything on Honda, who have been hapless since their return in 2015, indeed, this year’s car seems strong other than the engine. However, just blaming the engine would not tell the story infighting and instability which helped lead them into this position.
The downfall of McLaren really began after Hamilton won his first, and McLarens latest championship in 2008. When this season ended, Ron Dennis, the chief principal stepped down, to let his deputy, Martin Whitmarsh, takeover. This was the beginning of a rivalry between Dennis and Whitmarsh which would lead to turbulence for the team for years. Once Dennis left, he still owned a 25% stake in the McLaren business and, although he had left the front line, always wielding influence over the company. The infighting stayed behind closed doors for years, but the signs were there that things weren’t quite right in this era, and Whitmarsh later revealed that he had to deal with constant interference from the top. In the Whitmarsh era, one of the biggest issues was that McLaren did not just lose Ron Dennis, but in this era lost a series of talented technical individuals – most significantly Pat Fry to Ferrari and Paddy Lowe, who went on to help mastermind the dominance of Mercedes. It was telling that McLaren after Whitmarsh never properly replaced these two individuals with other highly rated engineers and designers like James Allison – the mastermind of Ferrari’s success this season, who was at lowly financed Lotus at the time, James Key or Pat Symonds.
The straw that broke McLarens back and really led to the shambles it is in now was the 2012 season. In this McLaren had the chance to give Lewis Hamilton his 2nd championship but failed due to reliability – in two different races his car broke down while leading – a series of terrible pit stops and under fuelling him in Spanish Grand Prix which lost him another win. In the fallout to this missed opportunity McLaren lost Hamilton and Paddy Lowe to Mercedes, and rest became history. In 2013, Whitmarsh backed Sergio Perez to replace Hamilton, and with a sub-par chassis, Perez failed to replace the star factor of Hamilton as McLaren stumbled to a distant 5th, failing to score a single podium, certainly their weakest performance as a team in over 30 years.
Following this season, in what must be look on as a knee-jerk reaction now, Dennis staged a coup, eliminating Whitmarsh not just from his team principal position but also as CEO for McLaren. Once Dennis did this, he then also went about dismantling Whitmarsh’s plan the future. Although he did not match perfectly up to Button first season, Perez was a driver of great potential, as proven more recently. Despite this, Perez and his sponsor money were first out the door while an inexperienced Magnussen was put in his place. Dennis then, trying to build a second legacy and made the greatest mistake of all – dumping the strongest engine in the sport of Mercedes to try and recapture the McLaren – Honda glory days with a manufacturer who had not been in F1 since 2008. Although Dennis got possibly the greatest driver alive in Fernando Alonso to sign up to this project, McLaren had put themselves in the position where they had designers not as strong as the main team and an engine far behind its rivals.
To make things worse, Dennis rushed Honda into rejoining the sport a year only, meaning that in 2015 the engine was underdeveloped and unreliable, and they’ve been trying to unsuccessfully play catch-up ever since. The McLaren owners, and Whitmarsh were not blind to what was going on, and ultimately in 2016 there was another coup, McLaren seemed to have become a Latino country in the early 1980s. This caused more instability in the back end of 2016, where staff that Dennis had hired in his three years, like ex Volkswagen Motorsport boss Jost Capito, were then sacked. This meant that in the build up to this season McLaren had been through two dramatic overhauls in three years.
In hindsight, it would have been a miracle if McLaren had turned up close to the front runners this season, so it actually is a huge surprise that the McLaren chassis is as strong as it is, but what it means is McLaren have ended up in their current situation. An engine which is light-years behind Mercedes and Ferrari, no superstar designer, a superstar driver likely to leave, a struggling rookie, and the team itself, a fallen giant. I hope McLaren turn it round, but I fear, that even with a star signing to the designing team, and a return to Mercedes power, McLaren will struggle to be in a championship battle for at least another five years.