The formidable power of McLaren’s engineering resources was displayed yet again here on Sunday when their dog of a car was transformed into a near race winner at the Australian grand prix.
Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button had both mumbled optimistic messages in Barcelona earlier this month, when their cars had languished behind those of Red Bull and Ferrari in testing. But the forlornness of their body language and voices told another story. If it was not quite a dog, their drive looked a long way from being a Crufts winner.
In Australia, though, McLaren were a revelation. A revised exhaust was fitted and a new floor too and Hamilton finished second to the imperious Sebastian Vettel, of Red Bull. Button finished sixth, even though he suffered a drive-through penalty which cost him more than 20 seconds after an overtaking move on Felipe Massa. On Sunday night, however, Button’s mood touched on the euphoric as he described McLaren’s progress as “outrageous”.
The 2009 world champion said: “When I came here and heard that we could be a second quicker I was excited about the possibility. But I’ve been around for a long time in Formula One now and I know that it [the car] sometimes doesn’t deliver what you might think. But I think it over-delivered here. I think we gained a lot more than one second over testing. I would say it was closer to two seconds. And that is just outrageous, to have that in an upgrade.
“I felt we were Force India’s pace in testing and in qualifying we were two seconds quicker than them. It is a massive leap forward. You cannot believe how different this car is to drive. But it is still in the early stages, the car is like a newborn, really. Today isn’t great, looking at my end result. But as a weekend it’s been fantastic and I really look forward to the next race in Malaysia.”
Hamilton, who damaged his floor when he came off the track, and therefore had to nurse his car home, was also upbeat as he looked towards the next race, which takes place in a fortnight’s time. “We weren’t all doom and gloom after Barcelona but we knew faced with a tough year and potentially weren’t going to be winning for a long time,” he said. “Now it feels very surreal to have beaten all the guys behind me and one Red Bull. And there’s only one more guy to beat and it’s the world champion in the world championship?winning car, which is the fastest at the moment.
“Beside him, there was no one who would have competed with me today. It’s a massive confidence boost for me and the whole team. Finally I’ve got something I can fight with, something I can take the fight to the Bulls with.”
The most relieved man in the McLaren camp was the team principal, Martin Whitmarsh, who has come under increasing pressure after two barren years and a dubious start to this season.
He said: “It wasn’t a win that got away. Two weeks ago I would have snatched your hand off for that result. Inevitably, fast forward and you are disappointed because your expectations grow stronger and you want to win races.
“For Lewis it was a great race and he did a great job. He had that floor problem and he probably lost five to eight points of downforce and at one point I didn’t think he was going to get to the end of the race. He did a great job. He was conserving the car. Jenson was very unlucky. Unlucky at the start to lose places and unlucky he was behind Massa. He was unlucky in that he felt he was run wide in trying to overtake.”
Button, who was going for a hat-trick of wins in Melbourne, said: “Three wins in three years is exciting but its nothing compared with winning a world championship, so the main aim is the world championship. I didn’t get off to the best start but we still got some points. Even in a bad race I picked up eight points. I don’t know if we are quick enough to challenge the Red Bulls. I don’t know if they were holding something back here. But we are very surprised at how far up the grid we were.
“Obviously there has been a lot of work in the wind tunnel and aero department to really work the exhaust in terms of blowing the diffuser. But still it is so early on and this is first time it has been on the car. So there is a lot we can do in the next two weeks to really improve that system and I think you will see a good chunk from us in the next race.”