McLaren’s team principal, Martin Whitmarsh, says the Red Bull drivers are likely to get ‘defensive and tight’ in Korea
It is only five races since Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button arrived in Hungary leading the drivers’ championship but after a devastating sequence of results another poor weekend here will, realistically, kill their title ambitions.
Button has had only one podium position in seven races, while Hamilton has failed to finish in three of his last five outings. But Martin Whitmarsh, McLaren’s team principal, says the British pair can still use their superior experience over Red Bull to provide a late twist to this year’s compelling world championship.
Button, the reigning champion, admitted this week he has been playing mind games on Mark Webber by asking the leader in the title race if he is feeling the pressure and Whitmarsh joined the psychological warfare today when he said: “I think it would be tough to take for Red Bull to lose the championship now.”
Both McLaren drivers have won world titles while neither Webber nor Sebastian Vettel have. And while Red Bull are title virgins McLaren have won 20 world championships (12 drivers and eight constructors) .
“We have a lot of experience on our side and two great drivers,” Whitmarsh said. “I hope it’s massively important and decisive. Both our guys know what it’s like – even if you’re leading a championship – when the pressure comes. It’s very easy to get defensive and tight.
“Both our guys have been through that. I think that’s good. And the team has been around for a lot of world championship victories. It would be convenient and nice to believe that the comparative lack of experience at finishing off a championship at Red Bull, both for the team and drivers, was going to be decisive. But I don’t think I can rely upon that, unfortunately.”
Hamilton and Button, who have both led the championship, now languish in fourth and fifth places, 28 and 31 points behind Webber, but Whitmarsh is conceding nothing yet. “If you look at the number of races where Red Bull have had the quickest qualifying car, they’re ahead of ourselves and Ferrari,” he said. “But they can be disappointed that they’ve allowed us to out-race them on quite a few occasions. That will be weighing on their minds as we get into the championship finale. I’m sure they feel some sense of frustration.”
It certainly would be devastating for Red Bull to lose the two world titles from here, especially after their frustrations last season. But even if Webber and Vettel fail to win this year the title would most likely go to Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, the form driver with two victories and a third place in the last three races, who is currently second in the standings after a wretched mid-season.
There have been both mistakes and misfortunes at McLaren. “Every race has had a different story. Jenson being taken out, T-boned, in the middle of a race [Spa] was undeniably not our fault,” Whitmarsh said. “It’s frustrating but I don’t spend a lot of time on that. There are 75 driver points to be taken so it’s mathematically well within our grasp. We’ve come here with new parts on the car and the determination to see if we can win here and score good points.”
At least the week got off to a good start. On Thursday they announced that the Vodafone McLaren Mercedes title partnership has been extended to the end of the 2013 season, while Hamilton is dismissing notions that he might leave a team that has struggled in recent races. He also said he is not tempted by the biggest team of them all, Ferrari.
“Ferrari is a legendary team and it’s one of those teams that has made the history, alongside McLaren,” he said. “But I don’t think their cars look anywhere near as nice as ours. I’m sure they don’t have a factory like we have. I don’t know the bosses at Ferrari but Martin [Whitmarsh] is an exceptional human being and so is Ron [Dennis]. Working with people like that is something lots of people would wish to have. So I feel very fortunate.
“When I was at McLaren last week, for example, looking around, I saw that it was such a professional team that I honestly can’t see myself anywhere else. That’s how I feel at the moment. You never know what’s going to happen in the future. Never say never. We’ve not always had the best car. We’ve not always done a perfect job. But it’s a fantastic team with great history and at least for as far as I can see I will be here for as long as they want to keep me.”
When Hamilton was reminded of the fact that some argue that you cannot have a complete career in Formula One without driving for Ferrari, he replied: “Look at Ayrton Senna. He was the best driver of all time and he was at McLaren. So I’ll be happy to stay.”
He will be even happier if he can claw into Webber’s 28-point lead on Sunday.