Some eagle-eyed readers may have noticeed that McLaren’s preview post, this very entry you’re reading, is out of sync with the previous. The previews were published in the reverse order of their constructor’s finishing place in 2007, which would mean McLaren should have been dealt with a long time ago. But as the Woking squad looked good, up until the Belgian Grand Prix at any rate, to finish in either first or second, I’ve chosen to post their entry as the penultimate in the series. And as the McLaren MP4-23 looks good to challenge for the 2008 title, it only seems right that they should be surrounded by the other top teams. So here, perhaps slightly late, is how I think McLaren’s title campaign is going to go this year.
2007 was a year or ecstatic highs and solemn lows. The MP4-22 was a race winner from the start of the season and continued to be until the end at Interlagos. It was fast, reliable and gave both drivers a chance to win the drivers championship. But it all came unraveled partway through the season when the FIA had to intervene and investigate espionage between certain McLaren employees and their counterparts at Ferrari. We all know what happened, or rather, what is still happening, and the result of which was a severe fine and the ultimate humiliation of being thrown out of the constructors title race. Whether or not the punishment was correct, the fact is McLaren will be desperate to reclaim the lost title and 2008 will be an all-out charge to beat nearest rivals Ferrari. That I am certain of.
The MP4-23s will be driven by Heikki Kovalainen and Lewis Hamilton this year, Fernando Alonso having decided to return to Renault after the personality clashes he endured while at McLaren in 2007. It was essentially a straight swap between Alonso and Kovalainen, the former having now warmed two seats for the Finn as the merry-go-round of drivers continues each year.
On the face of it, you’d have to say McLaren have a very weak line-up, both drivers having only completed one season of Formula One racing each. But we all saw the competitiveness of Hamilton in 2007, and Kovalainen went on to beat his experienced team mate at Renault last year. So while each driver may have only completed seventeen races, the talent sitting within the driving seats is clear; McLaren have one proven winner and one who should, by most expectations, become a winner.
What the team doesn’t necessarily have is maturity and wisdom though. While Hamilton is known to have enough talent to challenge for the title is only his first year of F1 racing, and Heikki showed great skill behind the wheel of the lacklustre R27, both drivers also made errors in 2007 that a more experienced pilot may not have. Of course, these mistakes are to be expected, but each driver was comforted by a known and trusted team mate during their maiden season. This time around, they are competing with one another.
Lewis Hamilton enters 2008 with the memory of almost winning last year’s crown. The young Briton must be full of confidence and raring to go at the moment, and it won’t be too long until we see if the car is up to the job and if Lewis can tame his eagerness. Hamilton is a reasonably clever driver and is a trusted part of the McLaren organisation. Many of his contemporaries and peers have tipped him to take the title this year, but seeing his performance in Brazil at the end of last season leaves me thinking that Lewis doesn’t handle pressure too well. At the start of the race Hamilton made a few errors that appeared to be the result of pushing too hard and trying to instantly make up the loss of position that each error caused. And if there is one trait you need to win the title, it is the ability to handle pressure from the first race to the last.
Heikki is still unknown unfortunately. The Renault R27 wasn’t exactly the greatest of cars to come from Enstone and it was harder to see if Kovalainen has the ability to lead from the front and keep going to the chequered flag. The Finnish driver made a few mistakes during the year, most notably on his debut at Australia which led to some harsh criticism from his boss, Flavio Briatore. Kovalainen raised his game though and took Briatore’s words on his chin. By the end of the year he was nine points clear of Giancarlo Fisichella, a driver who has won races and enjoyed a long career in F1.
Watching these two drivers is going to be fascinating, and McLaren have vowed to allow them equal opportunity to challenge for wins and the title. Obviously, that would be up to a point, but to begin with I’m expecting these two be going at each other like hammer and tongs on the race track. The biggest concern for me would have to be their tempestuous naivety. I can see one driving into the other and then swearing blind they had the right of way. The team have said that there won’t be any repeat of the difficulties faced last year, and I’m sure they have both sat through many chats about team playing and working towards one goal. But I’m still unsure of how these two youngsters are behave towards one another when the visor comes down and the engine is fired into life.
The MP4-23 was conceived under a cloud of controversy, following the realisation that the spy saga last year may have affected the legality of the 2008 machine. McLaren will have a long-term plan regarding the future development of their car, a plan that probably exceeds most expectations in terms of longevity. It is therefore understandable to assume that the MP4-23 started coming to life in the early part of last season, continually updated and remodeled at times. But the chances of the car being illegal (in relation to the Ferrari saga) have now passed and the car has been deemed ‘good to race’.
In testing the MP4-23 has looked fast and strong. McLaren have used all four drivers to good use and their advantage; Hamilton, Kovalainen, Pedro De La Rosa and Gary Paffett all putting in decent mileage. The team have been present at most big test sessions in Spain and the car was one of the first to be unveiled back in January. From testing it is hard to see anything that looks particularly troublesome, so the real test will come on Friday in Melbourne when it finally runs at speed alongside its rival cars. Needless to say though, it is likely that McLaren have a car to challenge for the titles.
McLaren will be racing Ferrari this year, and it is likely that the wins will be shared fairly evenly between the two teams, their respective testing pace indicating a small margin that fluctuates each way. Where McLaren win they also lose; they have talent in the drivers, but they also lack experience. De La Rosa will do his usual job of developing the car well during the year, but the hard work of the team could very easily become undone by silly errors on race day. I would expect McLaren to win the constructors, but I don’t think either driver has it to conquer Kimi Raikkonen for the drivers title yet.