Yet another McLaren controversy

The story surrounding Lewis Hamilton’s disqualification from the Australian Grand Prix has moved quickly without me having had a chance to write about it yet. There are so many aspects to this story.

First of all, it’s worth looking at the role of the FIA stewards here, and the process behind how stewards make their decisions. Up until this week, I had assumed that the stewards — or at least someone at the FIA — monitored all radio communications as a matter of course. Presumably this is how the radio transmissions between the McLaren team and Lewis Hamilton were discovered. So fair enough.

But to me, it beggars belief that the stewards do not listen to any radio conversations that may have occurred during contentious situations. Moreover, the fact that the FIA did not clock the fact that Hamilton had told different stories to the media and the stewards earlier demonstrates that they don’t really have a clue how to minimise these sorts of situations which are damaging to F1.

It seems as though the entire world, except for those in the stewards’ room up the ivory tower, filled with Max’s mates who run caravan clubs and have never watched a grand prix before — knew that Hamilton deliberately slowed down to let Trulli past. The entire stewarding process needs reform, and not just the tinkering that the FIA does to try and placate the fans.

Race Control also have a potential role that could sort out this kind of situation with the minimum of fuss. They could have simply clarified the situation while the cars were on the track, rather than constantly altering the results behind closed doors. But as Keith points out, they seemingly can’t be bothered — or are deliberately ducking the responsibility.

Now onto McLaren’s role, and if the FIA seem incompetent, McLaren seem to have gone completely loopy. It is not often I feel sorry for Lewis Hamilton, but I have to say I feel awful for him right now.

If I was a driver, I think McLaren would be the last team I would want to drive for. Let us face facts. Despite their puffed-up prestige, McLaren have not been a very successful team over the past decade or so. After a few close calls at the start of the decade, McLaren went into a deep slump in 2003 and 2004 when they produced a car that was so unreliable it never raced, then followed that up with a car that was not particularly fast and was still unreliable.

It took them until 2007 to find their old form again, and it should have been a dream year for them. They had the World Champion in one car, and the hottest rookie F1 had seen in over a decade in the other. But the situation with the drivers was completely mismanaged, and Fernando Alonso had catastrophically lost trust in the team by the end of the season. Things came to a head in Hungary that year with the controversial incident in the pitlane, at which point we can safely say the relationship ended between McLaren and the best F1 driver since Schumacher.

That was nothing compared to Stepneygate. While you can question to what extent McLaren as an organisation, rather than Mike Coughlan and one or two other individuals, was culpable for that, it did reveal that McLaren as a team was not as well-managed as Ron Dennis liked to think — or liked us to believe he thought. The icing of the cake was when McLaren promised that they hadn’t used any of the knowledge attained from Ferrari’s dossier — only to issue a mea culpa when it was discovered that three elements of the car were inspired by the document.

All the while, what should have been a dream 2007 became a complete nightmare. What should have been a Drivers’ Championship (and McLaren had two drivers that were perfectly capable of winning it) and an easy Constructors’ Championship ended in disgrace and disqualification.

To an extent, McLaren put the terrible events of 2007 behind them to successfully gain the Drivers Championship in 2008. But the season was not without its problems.

At times, McLaren seemed to be conspiring against their own driver. Thanks to their inflexible strategies, which are generated by a computer in Woking, they almost threw away the German Grand Prix which should have been an easy victory. Tyre blunders at Monza completely put paid to Hamilton’s chances to win in Italy.

Meanwhile, throughout the season McLaren appeared to develop a paranoia over penalties handed out by the FIA. A siege mentality appeared to develop inside McLaren.

Matters cannot have been helped by last year’s Spa controversy. Indeed, Martin Whitmarsh even referred to Spa in his statement today, which suggests that as an organisation, McLaren continues to be badly affected by the events surrounding that weekend.

For me, McLaren’s actions in Australia demonstrate that they continue to be jittery when it comes to the FIA. As pointed out by a journalist during Lewis Hamilton’s press conference today, McLaren did nothing wrong on the track. The only thing they did wrong was lie to the stewards.

So, why lie to the stewards? Dave Ryan is a highly experienced person. He has been an employee of McLaren since 1974. He was Team Manager from 1990, and became Sporting Director last year. He is highly experienced, and by all accounts he is a good person.

But in Australia had made a humongous error of judgement when he withheld the truth from the stewards, and apparently advised Lewis Hamilton to do the same. Why on earth he thought this was a good idea, when he knew that the radio conversations will have been recorded, will surely remain a mystery. I would be surprised if Mr Ryan himself knows why he did it. It seems as though the siege mentality is still getting the better of McLaren, and Ryan lost the ability to think rationally. Emotions got the better of the team when it came to discussing the situation with the stewards.

Dave Ryan has been sent home in disgrace, suspended from work by the company he has loyally served for 35 years, apparently sighted in tears as he left the circuit during Friday Practice 1. Another McLaren employee’s career appears to have been left in tatters.

Like I say, I feel awfully sorry for Lewis Hamilton today. He is getting a lot of stick from the media at the moment. But he did nothing wrong. Indeed, he erred on the side of caution when he went on the radio to inform the team that he had passed Trulli while the Toyota driver was off the circuit. That is perfectly legal.

But McLaren were caught out not having the knowledge of the rulebook, which they really should have. They misinformed Hamilton. When they realised their mistake they created a convoluted way to rectify the situation, and failed to properly cover their tracks. Reminds me of Hungary 2007.

None of this is Hamilton’s fault. He may have lied to the stewards, but Dave Ryan must take the blame for this for badly briefing him. In that situation, I wouldn’t doubt someone as experienced as Dave Ryan.

The McLaren team is now a complete shambles. Now a perennially under-achieving team, it stumbles from one crisis to the next. You just never know when McLaren are going to put their foot in it again, but it will happen sooner or later.

If I was Lewis Hamilton, I would start seriously considering moving to another team. McLaren is constantly finding controversy. It is clear that the team doesn’t know the rules as well as it should. The team’s strategies are inflexible and often plain wrong. And most of all, they have produced a terrible car — not for the first time this decade.

Vodafone and McLaren’s other sponsors must be thinking the same. McLaren are coming across in the media as serial cheats and liars, and it can be doing no good whatsoever for “Vodafone McLaren Mercedes” to constantly be in the news for the wrong reasons.

Speaking of which, I wonder what Mercedes thinks of all this. For years they have shown a lot of patience in McLaren, despite the fact that the team has not always produced the results. This year Mercedes is trying out life as a supplier of engines to teams other than McLaren. The fact that Brawn could bolt a Mercedes into their car at short notice and cruise to victory standing on their head in Melbourne will have come as a revelation. Perhaps it is the Brawn, not the McLaren, which should have the silver livery.

McLaren need to sort themselves out, and fast. Everyone concerned — drivers, sponsors, engine suppliers — must be dreading what on earth is coming round the corner from this shambolic team.

11 comments

  1. You have produced the single best post about this issue that I have read so far. Congratulations. Your cover of the topic from the roots to the ultimate consequences makes me feel fortunate to read your blog.
    I have no more to comment, since I agree with all of your points. Even with the feelings about Hamilton, a pilot that is certainly not my cup of tea. The worst part of the British press feeds on fallen heroes and this year, with Button on top and Hamilton struggling, I feel that they have the dinner served.
    May I suggest Williams for Lewis?

  2. Agree with the sympathy – I think the fairest way to settle this would be to reinstate Lewis to P4 behind Trulli (he did nothing wrong on the track) and give him his points + fine.Big fine for McLaren + no constructors championship points.He did lie , yes , but as you pointed out well he was given instruction to do this by Dave Ryan (erroneously) and probably wouldn’t have thought to question a senior member like this.

    Interesting you post that – I’ve always been under the impression since Hungary 07′ that McLaren seem to have some serious issues as a team which seem to have severely compromised their decision making (far too conservative) on quite a few occasions.A few occurances particularly stick in my mind: (I know it’s easy to sit on a PC and write this when I’m not making the decisions :D)

    China 07 – Hamilton is kept out on worn rear tyres while it’s quite obvious to all watching he desperately needs to be brought in (severe drop off in lap times).When they do bring him in he runs wide because the right rear tyre is destroyed to the canvas.The rest is history.

    Brazil 07 – Team chooses a extremely aggressive three stop strategy after Hamilton has intermittent transmission failure running him on softer tyres which fell away very quickly in ultimate laptime.

    Silverstone 08? – Took in my view quite a gamble not putting Lewis onto full wet tyres during delug like Honda did with Barrichello

    Hockenheim 08 – like you mentioned , the team did not react to a SC being deployed fast enough to bring him in , left him P4/P5 after restart.

    Italy 08 – Poor timing with sending Lewis out on inters on a track which was clearly too wet for him to get any kind of tyre temp with steadily increasing rainfall.(Hope this doesn’t happen tomorrow)

    Brazil 08 – Dangerously conservative strategy , there was a part in that race when Hamilton didn’t seem to be pushing on in P4 when I felt he should have closed on Kimi and built a gap away from the car behind him.Team did not react quickly to put Lewis on dry tyres again after initial shower.

  3. To be fair to McLaren, it is not the only team to have trouble interpreting the rules. It is clear from the radio transmission between Trulli and Toyota in Melbourne that they did not know what to do either. That is understandable, since the rules do not cover the case of a car going off the track during a yellow flag period. The “slowing with a problem” exemption to the no passing rule has been cited as covering this but this is an interpretation that the stewards do not necessarily share in. They have done so this time but that is no guarantee that they will do so the next time the problem crops up.

    Too often the rules are unclear and/or interpreted by the stewards in inexplicable ways so it is no wonder that McLaren are paranoid, having suffered from far too many bad decisions in the past.

  4. Thanks for the comments.

    Francois, I think you are quite right to point out all of those strategy errors McLaren have made in the past few years. McLaren seem to stumble from one blunder to the next, and you have to wonder quite why things have unravelled so spectacularly in the past few years.

  5. The usual precise and balanced view from you; nevertheless, I would not release Hamilton as 100% not responsible. In other occasions he did not obey team orders (Hungary 2007) and nothing happened to him, so this week was another very good occasion for desobeying McLaren.

    I am sure suddenly lots of people will look at 2007 in a different way… but anyway, terrible management by a powerful team. With such monumental amount of money in the spot it is unbeliavable that they made such a huge mistake.

  6. Lewis cannot be blameless for this.

    If you are told to withhold the truth, you have to use your good sense. If go ahead with the team instructions, you are as guilty as the team. It works like this for the rest of the world and it should be no different for Lewis.

    Lewis’s apology was something he had to do to rescue his image. Whether he was sorry that he did it, or that he was caught, is debatable. He blamed Dave Ryan and did not even admit that he should have known better.

    With Mclaren, he was given many opportunities and has achieved his dreams. You have to take the good and the bad. For him to leave the team when they have made some mistakes, or when they are down, would be ungrateful, and would reflect badly on Lewis as a person.

  7. An excellent post, covering a lot of ground there. I agree that Lewis cannot be blameless in this, and it also has to be said the McLaren’s paranoia about FIA rulings is justified – the FIA seem to specialise in making wrong or contradictory rulings (or for that matter, just way too many rulings).

  8. Qn @ DoctorVee – if the team in question had been Ferarri, would the FIA be treating this as seriously as they are for McLaren, or would they have ignored it totally?

  9. John B, It’s always an interesting point to wonder how the FIA would have treated Ferrari in the same situation. The thing is, Ferrari haven’t been caught doing anything like this in recent times. For McLaren, it seems to fit an emerging pattern. A major difference is that, whatever you make of the FIA’s handling of Stepneygate, McLaren were warned about their future conduct, whereas Ferrari haven’t been. McLaren knew that and they should have been more careful.