Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button, McLaren’s test driver and engineers work round the clock to keep up with Red Bull
Should McLaren go on to take the drivers’ championship then they may look back on the selflessness of their largely unsung test driver Gary Paffett.
After a frustrating day of first practice on Friday, McLaren dispatched Paffett back to their Woking headquarters to try to find a solution to their cars’ lack of performance. The young Englishman spent six hours in a simulator careering around Silverstone without moving an inch and the conclusion was that the blown diffuser intended to take their grip levels nearer to the pace-setting Red Bulls should be removed from both cars.
The major upgrade intended for the cars may not have quite worked then – eighth and 13th was not where they expected to be on the time sheets at the end of the first day – but Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button at least rescued 30 points and their lead in both the drivers’ and constructors’ championships at the end of a weekend that could have been a write-off. Hamilton’s second place and a remarkable fourth from 14th on the grid for the world champion, Jenson Button, were more than the team could have possibly hoped for after the three hours of practice on Friday.
The feeling in the paddock after qualifying yesterday was not that Button had driven badly to be down in 14th, just that Hamilton had been exceptional to drag his McLaren up to fourth. The driver described it as a “stonking lap” and “the best I’ve had in Formula One”. The team principal, Martin Whitmarsh, admitted that the team had “probably pushed too hard” in trying to get upgrades on the car in time for Silverstone but they were hopeful of a good result. With two weeks now until the German grand prix at Hockenheim both drivers can expect plenty of time in the simulator perfecting the planned improvements that could turn the McLaren into a Red Bull-beater and propel one of them to the world title when the curtain comes down on the season in Abu Dhabi in November.
As usual Hamilton did enough off the start to trouble the squabbling Red Bulls and the slight contact his front wing made to Sebastian Vettel’s right rear tyre at the first corner shaped the race. The young German’s excursion off the road with a puncture, coupled with a tardy getaway by Fernando Alonso that led to an untidy scuffle with his Ferrari team-mate, Felipe Massa, allowed Button to make up six places on the opening lap. A little over an hour and a half later the McLarens were second and fourth.
Hamilton was asked if the result was a miracle, considering the weekend the team had endured. “Not a miracle,” said Hamilton, “just a reflection of hard work by the whole team. Even Jenson did a fantastic job today.”
The two Englishmen sit one-two atop the standings going into the second half of the season, with Hamilton 12 points to the good. The Red Bull duo lurk just behind. Under this season’s new points scoring system, with a win worth 25 points and even a driver finishing 10th earning one, it is only going take a pointless race by one of the leading contenders to alter the standings dramatically.
Points earned in adversity today will be crucial when the final totting up is complete and despite McLaren’s technical difficulties at Silverstone, Whitmarsh is confident that the team has learned enough to run their blown diffuser at the German grand prix in a fortnight’s time.
The rest of the grand prix calendar will require a car that handles a wide array of tracks and Red Bull has the edge in that department, but they did in the first half of the season with the exception of Canada.
Should the diffuser upgrade in Germany work better than it did at Silverstone then McLaren can head into the second half of the season with optimism. A better-handling car combined with Hockenheim’s straights will suit the red and silver cars and the fiddly nature of the Hungaroring a week later will benefit a car that uses straight-line speed to gain position on a track that makes overtaking almost impossible otherwise.
The three-week break after Hungary will provide another opportunity for the boffins at Woking to keep tweaking a car that McLaren will continue to improve as the season winds down. They will expect to contend at Spa and Monza and then have an advantage as the season heads for its final “flyaway” leg in the Asia and Brazil.
What really matters now are the points standings and McLaren sit firmly at the top of both with plenty of room for improvement. Hamilton and Button are in the thick of this thrilling title fight. The next few weeks will decide if McLaren can take their car up to and beyond the level of the Red Bull. There will be little sleep had in Woking. The push goes on.