If someone told Martin Whitmarsh during pre-season testing that going into the summer break that his team would have four wins and be sitting second in the constructors championship, I think he would have taken that. After a bare all launch in Germany where the car was assembled in front of the expecting crowd, it soon became apparent that the MP4-26 had some serious teething problems as they struggled to find grip. Martin Brundle said at Barcelona that “it looks like it’s driving on ice, there is no grip”.
As big as the shock was to see McLaren so far off of the pace in testing, not many in the paddock could have been expecting the turn of pace they showed when the racing got under way in Melbourne. The smiles on the driver’s faces had reappeared after last minute upgrades, including a titanium diffuser, turned the car into a contender overnight. Button qualified 4th and Hamilton split the two Red Bulls in 2nd but neither had an answer to Vettel’s searing pace, but Hamilton scored an impressive podium coming home in second.
McLaren wouldn’t have to wait long to stand on the top step of the podium, after two successive wins for Vettel in Melbourne and Sepang, Hamilton gave the rest of the chasing pack some hope as the German picked the wrong tyre strategy allowing Hamilton to close and pass in the closing stages. This was Hamilton’s first win since the Belgium Grand Prix back in August 2010 and he was delighted, “I’m overwhelmed. There is a long road ahead of us but I’m absolutely over the moon, it feels like a long time since I’ve been sitting here.”
Jenson Button once again showed his prowess in changeable conditions to open his 2011 account in a quite remarkable race in Canada, in a rain affected race that lasted over four hours from lights to flag. Button tangled with team-mate Hamilton on the start-finish straight to put him out of the race. After a two hour delay because of heavy rain the race got back under way. A combination of a puncture, (through a collision with Alonso) a drive through penalty for speeding behind the safety car left Button last in the race. The Frome flyer went on to master the changing conditions and as the safety car took to the track again with ten laps to go, he had fought his way up to 4th behind Vettel, Schumacher and Webber. As Vettel once again scampered off in to the distance, Button took advantage of his DRS and quickly passed Schumacher and Webber to chase down the leader. Going into the last lap, the gap was down to less than a second. Button was looking good for a run into the final chicane with the DRS until a mistake from Vettel, going wide in turn 6 gifted the win to Button.
With further wins coming in Germany and Hungary for the pair, the momentum is firmly with McLaren. With still three, 1-2 finishes effetely separating them and Red Bull in the constructors championship, Managing Director, Jonathan Neale knows that they must keep their attacking mentality if they are going to stand any chance over the remaining eight races. “We certainly haven’t given our drivers any change of brief,” he said. “We still intend to give both drivers equal opportunity in terms of all of the upgrades that we bring to the circuit and they should both attack at all opportunities.” He continued, “The most important thing for us is to continue to win races and the only way we are able to do that when the competition is as tight as it is, is to keep our drivers focussed on taking every opportunity that they can and for us in the team to get behind them and say we will work on the reliability and give them confidence in the systems.”
While I believe both championships will end up where they went last year, I think McLaren will be the team on top, pushing for victories more often than not in the final eight races.