Day Seven: McLaren

On the seventh day of Christmas, Ben Sweeney gave to me… McLaren

Drivers: Jenson Button and Sergio Perez
Championship Standings: 5th
Highest Finish: 4th (Button, Brazil)

2013 marked McLaren’s 50th year of operation and they made sure that you knew about it, holding a ceremony about the same at the MP4-28′s unveiling at their factory in Woking. With all the racket, it was both shocking and embarrassing for Jenson Button to qualify tenth in Qualifying. Furthermore, Lewis Hamilton’s replacement, Sergio Perez, couldn’t better fifteenth in his first outing for the team. This happened at the same circuit as where only a year before Hamilton had been on the front row of the grid. Starting on the harder Pirelli compound, Perez managed to twist the race strategy to suit him and finish eleventh while Button progressed to ninth in the race. A disappointing result for the Briton who is a double winner at Albert Park.

Firmly assured that Australia was merely a first round blip, McLaren went to Malaysia confident of being further up the grid. Technically they were right with Button qualifying eighth and Perez tenth, but it was still not the performance they were hoping for. The Sunday, which saw the conditions that Button tends to thrive in, proved useless to the 33-year-old who retired with a wheel issue. Perez took the team to a points when he equalled Button’s ninth place in Australia. In China, Button took the team’s highest finish this season to date when he crossed the line in fifth. Perez in the other car was eleventh.

Button and Perez came to blows in Bahrain when they came wheel to wheel several times during the race. Button complained that Perez was being over-aggressive to his team-mate while Perez radioed the pit wall to say the same of Button and that he was holding him up. Eventually Perez trumped Button and finished sixth compared to JB’s tenth. They finished in the points again at Catalunya, crossing the line eighth and ninth.

Perez’s actions in Monaco were met with mixed reactions. The Mexican, keen to clear himself from Button’s shadow, qualified seventh and during the race spotted the run into the Nouvelle chicane as an overtaking spot. Instead of the calculated overtaking one would expect from a top-class driver, Perez simply consistently deliberately overshot the braking point of the corner while throwing the McLaren up the inside of the corner. This would block the road and unless the other driver backed out of the corner, the two would make contact. Eventually Sergio encountered Lotus’ Kimi Raikkonen who is not as easily bullied and Perez, as usual, outbraked himself, expecting to frighten Raikkonen out of turning and instead made contact with the Finn. Perez’s race eventually ended when he out-braked himself into the last corner and took to the escape road. Post-race, Raikkonen, Button and Fernando Alonso were among the chorus of drivers criticising Perez’s driving, but race control took no action.

While McLaren showed improved pace in Monaco, they were back to the mid-field in Canada when both cars were knocked out in Q2 and finished the race in eleventh and twelfth. Perez was one of the big losers of the Pirelli drama in Silverstone, suffering two tyre blow-outs over the weekend. The second blow-out occurred in the closing stages of the Grand Prix and left Perez with too much damage to continue on and he dropped from the race. Button finished out of the points in thirteenth at his and McLaren’s home race.

As a member of the Grand Prix Driver’s Association, Button was one of the signatories of a letter to the FIA and Pirelli released on the Thursday before the German Grand Prix which warned that if there was a repeat of the Pirelli tyre dramas then they would pull out of the Grand Prix. However, Pirelli had shipped a thousand new-compound tyres from its Turkish factory and the weekend went without a hitch for the tyre manufacturer. It was also a strong weekend for McLaren who qualified ninth and thirteenth for Button and Perez respectively, but moved up the order in the race to finish sixth and eighth. At the last round in Hungary, Button pushed his way from thirteenth to seventh in the race at the circuit where he grabbed his first career win in 2006. Perez qualified in the top ten, starting and finishing ninth.

Coming back from the summer break, Button finished sixth, a strong performance for the team in its current shape, while Perez crossed the line in eleventh. Unfortunately for McLaren fans, it seemed that the summer break had not produced upgrades to help McLaren fight for podiums. In Italy, Raikkonen and Perez nearly came together at the start of the race, resulting in the Finn going wide onto the grass. At the end of the race, Raikkonen overtook both Perez and Button, denying Jenson the final points finish.

The McLaren boys had a quiet race in Singapore, Jenson finishing just ahead of Perez who finished eighth, not a bad achievement considering he started fourteenth. Button finished in the points again in Korea, taking tenth following another straightforward race, while Perez narrowly clung onto the final points on offer, crossing the line tenth merely eight-tenths ahead of his country-man Esteban Gutierrez.

The Japanese Grand Prix has always been one of Button’s strongest circuits. This year, however, as if to emphasize McLaren’s loss of performance, he could only qualify tenth before moving up one place to ninth, although that was due to Lewis Hamilton (who started ahead) suffering a puncture and retiring. Perez dropped from eleventh to fourteenth in the race, over a lap behind race-winner Vettel.

Button had a remarkably poor race in India, dropping from his Qualifying position of tenth down to fourteenth. Perez, on the other hand, was driving for his career and raced from ninth to fifth by the time the checkered flag flew. In Abu Dhabi, Perez qualified eighth and dropped to ninth on  Sunday while Button qualified and finished twelfth.

In  the second Austin Grand Prix, Button was slapped with a three-place grid penalty for the race when he overtook Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat under red flags during FP1. As a result, the Briton started fifteenth, but bumped himself up the order to tenth during the race. Perez was once again stronger than his experienced team-mate, starting and finishing seventh.

And so to the final race in Brazil. Button is remarkably good in the wet, and the weather forecast predicted rain for the Sunday. Certainly, the rain came down hard in Qualifying but, unusually, Button only qualified fifteenth Perez originally qualified fourteenth but was demoted by five places due to a sudden gearbox change. The much promised and anticipated rain failed to materialise on race day, instead replaced by a light drizzle. Button, however, sliced through the field and took McLaren’s best finish of the season – fourth. Perez had an equally impressive race, going from nineteenth to sixth.

Overall, the season was very disappointing for McLaren, particularly as they were celebrating their fiftieth year of operation. The loss of Paddy Lowe to Mercedes certainly cost them, but it was Hamilton’s departure that essentially spelled trouble for the Woking based outfit. The team battled with the friction between their two drivers all year and were lucky to not have to deal with a Red Bull-like on-track collision. The team will be hoping that the 2014 regulations will be the helping hand back to podium finishes, if not wins.

Image courtesy McLaren F1 Team.

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