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The Other Time McLaren Turned Their Season Around

Written by Apostolos Papageorgiou, Edited by Meghana Sree


McLaren have taken the Formula 1 world by storm as of late, after an impressive jump in performance during the last couple of races before the summer break. They managed to go from the middle of the pack to third fastest in Austria, upset a lot of the leading cars before outright beating them at the very next round in Britain, and even gave the all conquering Red Bull of Max Verstappen a hard time, in both qualifying and the race. Their form also carried through to Hungary and Belgium, even if the results weren’t as optimal as expected. However, their result at Silverstone is particularly noteworthy, given the team scored more points that Sunday than all the other weekends up to that point combined.

All this is a testament to the continued effort and hard work from everyone at the factory. But while it may seem surprising, this is not the first time the team from Woking managed to perform a complete turn-around with their car mid-season to save what had looked like a lost cause thus far.

Back in late 2008, McLaren and their long time rival Ferrari were locked in a fierce battle for the Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championships, meaning they were forced to develop that year’s cars further into the season than most. This left them with less time to prepare for the 2009 regulations, featuring perhaps the biggest set of aero changes the sport had seen in decades. On top of this, long time McLaren team principal Ron Dennis decided to step down at the end of 2008, handing the role over to Martin Whitmarsh.

Ron Dennis handed over the baton to Martin Whitmarsh; Image credit - Allsport

Understandably, with so much happening in the background, the team went to pre-season testing underprepared, with one of the slowest cars on the grid. Paddy Lowe, McLaren engineering director at the time, was quoted as saying that it was ‘a bit of a shock’ as the team realised they were 2.5 seconds down on the fastest time. Scrambling to find a solution, McLaren desperately tried to salvage the situation by bringing various upgrades to the first race in Melbourne and making plenty of short term fixes to the car till Spain, in the hopes of clawing back as much performance as possible.

Despite a point-less first race, owing to a disqualification for lying to the stewards about Lewis Hamilton and Jarno Trulli swapping positions during a late race Safety Car, the team finished in the top eight for the following three races; securing a best result of fourth in Bahrain and amassing a total of 13 points. This became enough to sit fourth in the championship, but less than three times the amount series leaders Brawn had after the same four rounds.

McLaren’s fears were realised at the Spanish Grand Prix, as most teams brought their first major upgrades of the season, while they were busy making adjustments race by race, leaving the team from Woking on the back foot once again. From Spain until Great Britain, McLaren managed to score a single point, courtesy of Heikki Kovalainen, falling from fourth to sixth in standings, behind Ferrari, who was also suffering its worst start to a season in years. Things got so bad for McLaren, that Hamilton - the reigning world champion at the time - went on a rather public radio outburst while battling the Renault of Nelson Piquet Jr for 16th place during the Turkish Grand Prix.

Credit: CNN

McLaren’s underlying problem in 2009 - much like this year - was a distinct lack of overall downforce, a result of the aforementioned circumstances leading up to the start of the season. The team didn’t do itself any favours either by sticking to a fundamentally flawed development path that needed changing early on. This only became more evident by the fact that they missed the double diffuser trick pioneered by Brawn, Williams, and Toyota.

Still, this was a championship-winning team for a reason, and they wouldn’t go down without a fight. Alongside the short term track fixes, McLaren also put a much more thorough and robust development programme in place, with the goal of closing the gap to the front. The road back to the top wasn’t easy, with the team accelerating designing and production of plenty of parts, going through as many as five different front wing designs and working tirelessly for months so everything would be ready for Mercedes’ home Grand Prix, at the Nurburgring.

McLaren arrived at the track with a brand new aero package, courtesy of a new front and rear wing, as well as a new floor, with further aerodynamic and suspension upgrades planned for races after the summer break. In the words of team principal Martin Whitmarsh: “Sometimes you have to step backwards to go forwards.”

Martin Whitmarsh, McLaren team principal in 2009; Image credit - Sky Sports

While that particular race in Germany wasn’t a success, as Hamilton suffered a puncture on lap one and the time lost was too great to recover, the Brit recorded his and the team’s first win of the year at the next round in Hungary, as well as the first win for the brand new KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System), of which McLaren was one of the early adopters. Further successes followed with podiums in Valencia, Japan, and Brazil. Another win was then secured in Singapore, while Hamilton secured four pole positions at the European, Italian, Singapore and Abu Dhabi Grands Prix.

Despite these highs, there was still some bad luck surrounding the team, with DNFs in Spa, Monza and Yas Marina all costing at least a strong points finish, if not a podium or win; while a pit stop error in Valencia cost Hamilton a crucial win. Even with these setbacks, McLaren managed to score a total of 57 points in the second half of the year– over four times as much as they did in the first half. Moreover, they beat their old nemesis Ferrari to third in the Constructors’ standings by a single point, while Hamilton also beat the Scuderia’s Kimi Raikkonen to fifth in the Drivers’ Championship by the same margin.

Flashforward to 2023, whether or not McLaren can continue to remain as competitive as they were this year in Silverstone, Hungary, and Spa remains a mystery for now. But if history is anything to go by - and it usually is in F1 - then there’s plenty of reason to believe that the papaya team have well and truly turned their season around.

A sign of the future? Credit: Motor Sport Magazine


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