A glorious track record

Motor sport

Smooth  drive:  Red Bull might have dominated the 2011 season but McLaren has shown that it can challenge the champions next season. AP

At the end of 2009, Jenson Button, who had just won the world drivers’ title, announced that he was leaving his Brawn team to join McLaren Mercedes, which had won only two races that season. Button explained his apparently odd decision: A driver knew that he could always win races with McLaren, he said, while most other teams did not have that winning culture and could not be depended on to provide a victorious car year after year.

Since then, Button has won five races with McLaren, while the Brawn team -- now renamed Mercedes -- has failed to win any, despite having the seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher behind the wheel since last year.

Since its founding in 1963, McLaren has become one of Formula One’s legendary teams. It is the second-most successful team in the series, behind Ferrari, having won 174 races, eight constructors’ titles and 12 drivers’ titles. It finished the series in second place last year, when its other driver, Lewis Hamilton, had still been in the running for the title until the last race.

This year, the team has finished second in the series again, although it has not won the drivers’ title since 2008, with Hamilton.

The team’s two drivers have combined to win five races this season, to only one victory for Ferrari and 11 for Red Bull, which took both titles this year, with Sebastian Vettel accounting for all its victories.

Over the last 30 years, McLaren has led the way in defining what a top Formula One team needs to be in the modern era. The team’s founder, Bruce McLaren, a driver, was killed in a non-Formula One practice-session accident in 1970, and throughout the subsequent decade the team struggled at times, but nevertheless won races regularly, taking the constructors’ title in 1974 and the drivers’ title that year and in 1976.

A new era began in 1981, when Ron Dennis took over the running of the team and eventual part-ownership. Dennis had built a reputation as a manager in the lower series, and had started in Formula One as a mechanic in 1966. He established a level of professionalism not seen widely in the sport, making sure that everything was run so cleanly and professionally that he was even known to have the garage floor painted at the track to maintain cleanliness.

Dennis led the team to its greatest period, with Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna winning six titles between them from 1985 to 1991. In the 1988 season, the two drivers combined to win all but one race.

In the 1990s, the team joined up with Mercedes, which bought a major interest in the team and provided engines, and it won another two drivers’ titles, in 1998 and 1999, with Mika Hakkinen driving.

At the turn of the millennium, the team built a huge factory headquarters in Woking, England, which also set the standard for team factories, although there is none other like it. It was designed by Norman Foster, one of the world’s great architects.

In 2009, Dennis left the racing direction to devote himself to the McLaren road car business, however, and he passed on the running of the team to his longtime associate, Martin Whitmarsh, who has worked at the team for two decades.

With the rise of the Red Bull team, which has the renowned designer Adrian Newey as the key to its success, McLaren, like all the other teams, has struggled to keep up.

“We haven’t been quite there and in this competitive arena we have to make sure as a team we do not make mistakes and make sure we have a quick enough car,” Whitmarsh said. “We have had some great racing by our drivers, but not quite quick enough; we have been quicker than Red Bull a few times, but not consistently.”

Button, who has won three races this year, agreed.

“We haven’t had the consistency throughout the year,” he said. “One weekend we will be getting the win or fighting for the win and two weeks later we won’t be so competitive. That is something we need to look at and sort out for next season. But we are ending the season better than we did last year, and if we make some progress I think we can start 2012 well. And you have to be there from the word go.”

Despite winning two races this year, Hamilton has had his worst season as he has been involved in a string of accidents and has been penalized several times.

“With the car we need more pace more consistently, but the team has done a fantastic job to be where we are today, as no one else has been able to split the Red Bulls,” said Hamilton, referring to McLarens having finished first or second in 12 out of the 17 races up until this weekend. He added that his own driving was the biggest problem for him this year, not the car.  Whitmarsh said the team still needed to improve on first laps, as that is when they have often lost positions this year.

Dennis recently announced that the factory would expand to accommodate an ambitious new road car business, which he hopes will make McLaren a multi-billion-dollar company in a few years. It thus seems fairly certain that the team will be around for a long time to come, chasing as ever after that distant No 1 spot held by Ferrari in both the record books and in road car production.

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