Have McLaren Finally Stopped Their Downward Spiral Through Formula 1?

Oliver Harden@@OllieHardenFeatured ColumnistAugust 17, 2014

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - MARCH 30:  Jenson Button of Great Britain and McLaren drives during the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix at the Sepang Circuit on March 30, 2014 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
Mark Thompson/Getty Images

For those who vividly remember watching the McLarens of Niki Lauda, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna scooping seven world titles in eight years in the 1980s and '90s, the events of the last two years must have come as quite the culture shock.

The Woking-based team have, of course, endured lulls of success in the past.

Seven years, for example, passed between Senna's final championship in 1991 and Mika Hakkinen's first in 1998.

Following the Finn's second title in 1999, McLaren then waited nine years—including a winless campaign in 2006—before Lewis Hamilton recorded their next drivers' crown, by a margin of just one point, in 2008.

And the constructors', you ask? Whisper it quietly, but it's slowly yet surely creeping up to 20 years since the McLaren name was inscribed on the trophy.

The team have, clearly, experienced more moments of disappointment than triumph in recent history—but never have McLaren, second only to Ferrari as the most victorious institution in Formula One history, seemed so lost, so aimless, so desperate.

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - JULY 09:  Kevin Magnussen of Denmark and McLaren drives during day two of testing at Silverstone Circuit on July 9, 2014 in Northampton, England.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
Dan Istitene/Getty Images

It is a fall from grace best reflected in the car's livery.

No longer are McLaren and all their glory represented on track by the striking red and white colour scheme of their golden years, nor the dashing chrome and "rocket red" combination that graced the car during their most recent shot at glory.

Instead, their creation is as grey as can be, blending into the very track surface it now trundles along.

Drivers and officials alike have come and gone—some made to walk the plank, others fleeing the sinking ship—as the team have scrambled to re-inject some inspiration. 

MONTMELO, SPAIN - MAY 11:  Sergio Perez of Mexico and McLaren shares a joke with his Team Principal Martin Whitmarsh as he leaves the paddock following qualifying for the Spanish Formula One Grand Prix at the Circuit de Catalunya on May 11, 2013 in Montme
Clive Rose/Getty Images

Yet even the team's desire to overhaul their driver line-up for the third consecutive season—having earlier this season courted drivers of the calibre of Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, according to The Telegraph's Daniel Johnson—has become a quest to change for change's sake, with the grid's leading drivers under contract.

McLaren's racing director, Eric Boullier, however, is adamant that the plan to drag the team from the doldrums is working.

The Frenchman, who dragged Renault from its knees in 2010 to win races as Lotus in 2012 and 2013, recently told Ben Anderson and Jonathan Noble of Autosport:

It's about the culture and bringing back the right leadership, the right management and putting the right processes in place.

It will take time and it may bruise some egos, but there will be some changes in the team because we have to close the book and start a new one.

We have definitely stopped getting "down" and in the past couple of months we have got back on track.

It's always difficult to stop a downwards spiral, but it now looks like we have stopped it.

We know it is going to take time to get back to the top. We have to be realistic, but at least now it looks like we are coming up.

I think by the end of the year 95 per cent will be completed and the foundation of McLaren for the next 10 years will be in place.

Boullier's interpretation of a handful of minor points' finishes as something of a mini-resurgence is indicative of how far McLaren have fallen since the end of 2012, when they won seven races, the same amount as world champions Red Bull.

And although Jenson Button, the team's lead driver, has finished as high as fourth—fourth!—on two occasions in the last five races, those results were achieved with large slices of luck on his side.

The 2009 world champion ran in eighth on the penultimate lap of June's Canadian Grand Prix, with the crash between Sergio Perez and Felipe Massa—coupled with some shenanigans between Nico Hulkenberg and Alonso—elevating Button to within one place of a podium finish.

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - JULY 05:  Jenson Button of Great Britain and McLaren celebrates in Parc Ferme after claiming third place on the grid during qualifying ahead of the British Formula One Grand Prix at Silverstone Circuit on July 5, 2014 in Northampton
Mark Thompson/Getty Images

At Silverstone the following month, Button took advantage of wet conditions to qualify third only after naturally faster cars had been caught out by the rain, before hounding Daniel Ricciardo to the finish line the next day.

Although against the backdrop of McLaren's rich heritage those results in Canada and Britain were nothing to write home about, the confidence created by those small, slight senses of achievement and satisfaction after an extended period of misery is invaluable.

By Boullier's maths, the return of Honda as the team's power unit supplier next year will presumably represent the final five per cent, the last piece of the jigsaw, of McLaren's recovery—but it is absolutely key to their hopes.

Ayrton Senna of Brazil drives the #27 Honda Marlboro McLaren McLaren MP4/5B Honda RA109E V10 during practice for the Italian Grand Prix on 8th September 1990 at the Autodromo Nazionale Monza near Monza, Italy. (Photo by Pascal Rondeau/Getty Images)
Pascal Rondeau/Getty Images

Unlike a year ago, when it was reported by Tobias Gruner of Auto Motor und Sport (h/t motorsport.com) that Mercedes had an advantage over rivals Renault and Ferrari in terms of power unit development, there has been little information over just where Honda will stand in the competitive order.

Will an extra year of research and development make the Honda power train an instant Mercedes-beater? Or will there be Renault-like teething troubles, with the Japanese manufacturer treating grand prix weekends as extended test sessions?

MONTE-CARLO, MONACO - MAY 22:  Jenson Button of Great Britain and McLaren drives during practice ahead of the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Monaco on May 22, 2014 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
Julian Finney/Getty Images

It will, you suspect, remain an unknown until the first pre-season test of 2015 begins and the throttle pedal of the MP4-30 is squeezed to the floor in anger for the first time.

The return of the McLaren-Honda name will either go on to recreate the success of the past, or go a long way toward tarnishing it.

It will either signify the light at the end of the tunnel, or herald the latest landslide.

The building blocks are steadily coming into place for McLaren—but you fear it'll only take the slightest of nudges for it all to come tumbling down.


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