Last year Lewis Hamilton achieved McLaren’s first race win of the season at the Hungaroring. This year Hamilton retired on lap 23 with a gearbox failure while Jenson Button came in 8th, behind Pedro de la Rosa, Nico Hulkenberg and Vitaly Petrov, as well as the 2 Ferraris and the 2 Red Bulls. In 2009 the Hungarian Grand Prix marked the return to form of the McLaren as Lewis Hamilton went in to gain more points in the 2nd hlaf of the season than any any other driver. This year I fear it could be a turning point of a different kind.
At the rick of being labelled pessimistic, I do fear that Hungary showcased just how far McLaren are falling behind the Red Bulls and Ferraris. Before Hamilton’s retirement he’d performed far better than the car by getting past Felipe Massa in the pits and moving from 5th place to 4th place, while Jenson Button had been languishing in 10th place, at least a slight improvement on his 14th place starting position. In qualifying Hamilton drove out of his skin just to get 5th place on the grid while Button failed to make Q3 and started in 11th. Bad qualifying had been a constant during Button’s season and it’s a testament to his race performance, and some luck, that he currently sits in 4th place in the Driver’s Championship.
While a 5th place start for Hamilton might not sound catastrophic, he was nowhere near the pace of the Ferraris and Red Bulls and the gap seems to be increasing with each race. Like McLaren last year, Ferrari have made a remarkable comeback and with some questionable tactics have catapulted Fernando Alonso right up into Championship contention. Hamilton meanwhile has relinquished the Championship lead to Mark Weber, who leads by 10 points, and is being chased down by Vettel who is just 6 points behind him, and 4 points ahead of Button, who himself is 6 points ahead of Alonso.
After the Hungarian Grand Prix McLaren also lost the lead in the Constructor’s Championship with Red Bull now ahead of them by 8 points. In fear that’s a lead that McLaren won’t be reclaiming, as performance issues aside Jenson Button seems to be falling more out of love with his car with every race. It’s a little similar to last year where Button suffered a drop in performance, such that he was almost caught by both Vettel and Barichello. of course last year he had a cushion of 6 wins, not something he can rely on this year.
Lewis Hamilton on the other hand, while not driving the best car, can always be relied on to get at least 100% out of the car and often more, retirements aside. But is that enough to make an impact in the last 7 races and give Hamilton a chance at becoming a 2-time World Champion? If I had to bet on a McLaren driver winning the 2010 Driver’s Championship I have to confess that’s not a bet I’d be putting much money on, though the combination of McLaren development and Hamilton driving is one that always has the potential to surprise and perform.
Am I being too negative? Maybe, but the speed of the 2 teams in front of McLaren is frightening, at least to a McLaren fan. Am I also being a bit harsh on Jenson Button? Again, maybe, but he does seem to under perform unless he’s 100% happy with his car and frankly in this race for the title we need more. With Red Bull’s apparent driver friction and Ferrari’s alleged team orders, I sometimes wonder if the harmonious atmosphere in the McLaren garage couldn’t benefit from a bit more fight between the two drivers. It’s great for PR to have 2 drivers getting along so well but is it really conducive to the best results on track?