Ignominy. That’s just one word of many that could be chosen to describe a new low for McLaren in this Formula 1 season that is turning into a lesson in the perils of hubris for the team and, in particular, their bosses.
Fernando Alonso – arguably the greatest driver of his generation, and certainly one of them – starts the French Grand Prix down in 16th place on the grid, two places ahead of his team-mate Stoffel Vandoorne.
“Very disappointing,” said racing director Eric Boullier, who not for the first time this year did not attend the team’s post-qualifying news conference.
It is not only McLaren’s worst qualifying performance of the year; it was the worst since last year’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix, when their former engine supplier Honda was still in the grips of the agonisingly unreliable start to the 2017 season that persuaded McLaren to split with them.
The decision to cut loose from a factory Honda partnership and choose instead to become a Renault customer came at a net loss of close to $100m. But it would be worth it, McLaren’s bosses claimed.
The chassis, they said, was one of the best on the grid and by changing engine they would be able compete this year with fellow Renault customer Red Bull, for podiums and even perhaps the occasional win.
Instead, they are a massive 1.7 seconds off Red Bull’s pace on average in qualifying. And that is – to state the obvious – all in the car.
Self-evidently, then, one of two things can be concluded. Either last year’s McLaren genuinely was that good, and they have made a dog’s dinner of this year’s car. Or McLaren’s analysis of its own performance was as woeful as the car itself – and they made a dog’s dinner of both machines. Most would plump for the latter.
McLaren continue to insist that they have no regrets about the Honda/Renault decision, even after Red Bull have now decided to go the other way for the next two seasons.
But the engine is not the point. Yes, the management have cost the shareholders a vast amount of cash, but as they are the Bahraini government and a Saudi billionaire, they can afford it. The issue is what on earth is going on at McLaren the team.
There has been a diverting little story this weekend courtesy of the Daily Mail’s Jonathan McEvoy, who extensively quoted an unnamed source saying unflattering things about the McLaren management and criticising their penchant for handing out chocolate bars as a reward for working long hours.
McLaren’s bosses have tried to shrug it off as a disaffected employee, not reflective of the general mood.
“We have had an overwhelming amount of support from everyone inside McLaren, it has actually kind of rallied the troops,” chief executive officer Zak Brown said.
“I think it is a very small group of individuals – or individual – and by no means representative of the wider group at McLaren.”
Brown said the car’s performance was “frustrating” but insisted: “We will get it right.”
He says the problems with the car are “aerodynamic but don’t show up in the wind tunnel, so we can’t replicate them in the wind tunnel, so we have to try to rectify them on the track.”
That analysis raises questions about the very fundamentals of McLaren’s design process – and about how the team might possibly be able to fix a problem the causes of which it cannot identify.
Getting a Renault engine this year has meant McLaren no longer have anywhere to hide.
They are directly compared with Red Bull and the Renault works team, and they are falling well short, regardless of the fact that Alonso’s unstinting excellence has so far rescued them on Sundays. He is up in seventh in the drivers’ championship and the team fifth in the constructors’, despite his car breaking down in the last two races.
Since it became apparent just how far off the pace they had fallen, McLaren have been undertaking an internal investigation into their technical structure.
The first results of that saw the departure of Tim Goss, the chief technical officer, before the Baku race in April, and Brown promoted to CEO with responsibility for the race team, from his mostly commercial previous role.
Since then, Brown has brought in former Indycar champion Gil De Ferran, Honda’s F1 sporting director for a couple of years in the mid-2000s, as a roving adviser. The Brazilian has been keeping a low profile, but has attended every race since Spain early last month, with a remit to offer advice and opinion on whatever areas he sees fit.
Meanwhile, the pressure is building massively on Boullier, who set up the technical structure that is under review. The Frenchman has been asked in both Canada and France whether he should resign. He said that he wouldn’t.
The jungle drums in the paddock are suggesting Boullier might not last much longer.
Whether that is the problem or even the solution is a different matter. McLaren need a technical director of the highest level, and a real shake-up, if this famous name is not to continue an already worrying decline.
Alonso continues to emphasise the positives. But what he really makes of driving a car so far below his capabilities, with a decision about his future to make in the next few months, can only be imagined.
A star is born
While one great star’s career is in danger of fizzling out in what can only be described as a very sad and depressing manner, a new one appears to have burst on to the scene.
Charles Leclerc is a member of the Ferrari driver academy and he is driving for Sauber this year to learn the ropes in F1 away from the spotlight. But the spotlight is well and truly on him now.
The 20-year-old Monegasque arrived in F1 with high expectations on him, having excelled in the junior categories. But it’s always hard to judge a driver until he arrives in F1, where the pressure is so much higher, and the competition so much tougher and more intense.
Many fall by the wayside, but every now and again someone comes along who looks a bit special, who finds a way to shine, no matter the quality of his car.
Leclerc is doing exactly what Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna and Alonso did in their first seasons – taking an average, or worse, car and making it do unexpected things.
Michael Schumacher, Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton also all gave notice of great talent from the moment they arrived. But the cars they had were more competitive.
Not so Prost, in 1980 when McLaren were in the doldrums, Senna in a Toleman in the early stages of 1984, or Alonso in a Minardi in 2001.
Leclerc had already impressed by scoring points in Baku, Spain and Canada, and leaving team-mate Marcus Ericsson – no superstar, but no mug either – in his dust. But France is proving something else again.
Leclerc got the Sauber into the top 10 qualifying shoot-out for the first time this year – in the process setting a lap nearly 0.8secs quicker than Ericsson, who admittedly was on the back foot after missing second practice following a heavy crash in the first session.
Leclerc is now six-two up on Ericsson in qualifying, at an average of nearly 0.7secs. The two he was behind were in the first couple of races of the season, when the young man was finding his feet and making errors.
Ferrari always intended for Leclerc to graduate to the senior team at some point, as long as he proved himself. Before this weekend, sources close to the team said that, while a decision had not been made between him and Kimi Raikkonen, it was 65-35 or so in Leclerc’s favour.
Saturday, which saw yet another error-strewn performance from Raikkonen in final qualifying, can only have consolidated that view.
Leclerc is looking more and more like Vettel’s team-mate at Ferrari in 2019. And if you were Vettel, four-time champion though you are, you might be just a little bit worried about that.
The fight for the race win
Lewis Hamilton always looked favourite for pole in France, from the moment he overcame a difficult start to the weekend with a lap that put him fastest in first practice. He also topped second practice – by 0.7secs.
Pole was duly delivered, but by less than 0.2secs over team-mate Valtteri Bottas, who had been compromised by missing much of second practice. And Hamilton was a little rueful.
“There was time left on the table,” he said. “I am grateful for the opportunity to be on pole but I left 0.3secs on the table and there is not one driver who would be happy with that much time left on the table.”
Hamilton is now determined to convert his first pole since Spain into a win, and reclaim the championship lead that Vettel took back by a point with victory in Canada.
“I want this one so bad,” Hamilton said. “I need it.”
On paper, he should walk it. Not only does he appear to have the fastest car, but he is on what looks to be a better strategy than Vettel.
Mercedes – and the Red Bulls which qualified fourth and fifth – will start on the more durable super-soft tyres, while Ferrari have gone for the ultra-softs.
The ultras have a smidge more grip initially but the pace difference is very small and the degradation on them is higher.
Vettel sounds confident, though. “It is fair to say we were a couple of tenths slower,” he said after qualifying, “but in the race I think we have a good chance. In race trim the car should be fine.”
All weekend the talk has been about the track layout not encouraging overtaking, about why organisers and the FIA did not choose to homologate the version of the track without a chicane in the famous Mistral straight. So much so that the drivers proposed it in their briefing on Friday.
But all may not be lost yet.
“It’s not the best place to overtake,” Vettel said, “but that is not necessarily detrimental to a good race or bad race. We’ll see what the day brings. I am open-minded.”