• Briton ousted by Mark Webber after failing to finish
• Red Bull’s superior technical expertise is all too clear
Such is the level of engineering excellence at the front of the field in Formula One that it is a relatively rare sight to see a car suffer a mechanical failure. They tend to either finish or crash, so it would have meant a deep intake of breath at McLaren as Lewis Hamilton trundled to a halt on lap 24 of the Hungarian grand prix.
The team have been on the back foot defending their lead in both the drivers’ and constructors’ championships and today Hamilton and Jenson Button were among the also-rans.
“I was accelerating out of turn one when I felt a sudden vibration and then a loss of drive,” Hamilton said. “I initially thought it was a driveshaft failure, but it now appears that it was a gearbox problem.
“It’s a pity to have a fault at this stage in the year, but that’s racing – when you push the car to the limit, these things can happen. We’ll learn from this, though, and we’ll just have to work even harder to make sure we don’t have any further problems this year, and that we can catch back up to the frontrunners – which I’m certain we’ll be able to do.”
Right now the frontrunners, Red Bull, are a long way ahead and appear to have mastered a front wing that put their cars 1.7 seconds ahead of the McLarens in qualifying. The wing flexes to allow it to run closer to the ground at speed but has passed every test the FIA, motor sport’s governing body, has applied as the rules state that bodywork must be rigid.
“After the summer shutdown, we’ll come back fully refreshed and utterly determined to apply ourselves as hard as is humanly possible to take world championship honours this season,” the McLaren principal, Martin Whitmarsh, said in defiance. “We’ve got lots of good people, we’ve got lots of good ideas, and we’re prepared to do lots of work. We always knew that this year’s world championship was going to be a tough battle, but we’re up for that tough battle – so bring it on.”
Button tried to find some positives from a dreadful race for the team. “It’s been a tough weekend, but we’ll come back fighting,” the world champion said. We’re a very positive and strong team, and we’ve been in difficult situations before, so we can definitely jump back from this.
“Finishing eighth wasn’t too bad. I lost a lot of points, and for the team to take home only four points today is disappointing, but there isn’t a very big points gap covering the top four drivers – I’m only 14 points behind the championship leader, after all – so it’s still all to play for.”
Whitmarsh has not made a protest over the Red Bull’s “flexiwing” but has sought clarification from the FIA before McLaren spend a small fortune in trying to replicate a device that they admit they do not understand. “Once we have that clarification, then we are able to push to do whatever seems to be allowed,” Whitmarsh said this weekend.
McLaren started the season with the F-Duct, which increases straight-line speed by stalling the rear wing. The majority of their rivals decided to incorporate it into their designs, but the Woking team had clearly stolen a march.
Focus then switched to Red Bull’s blown rear diffuser, which channels exhaust gasses through the back of the car to increase grip. McLaren tried to introduce their own version at Silverstone and have not fully come to terms with it.
The flexiwing is the next technical innovation that all aspiring grand prix teams must have, but it will only be any use if you can make it work.
“I hope the clarification really does not allow the endplates to continue to touch the ground,” Whitmarsh said. “There are endplates out there whose metallic skids are touching the ground, which are meant to be way off the ground. I think the FIA has got to take a view now of what is acceptable, and if it is acceptable, to get the endplates down.
“If anyone who just looks at the regulation that says bodywork must be attached rigidly, then goes to look at endplates that ought to be 90mm off the ground and sees them touching the ground, then I think a lay person would be surprised that that is permissible.”
McLaren are in the thick of the title fight but Red Bull clearly have a better weapon at their disposal with only seven races left.