NOT since 35-year-old British journeyman heavyweight Julius Francis got the soles of his boots sponsored by The Mirror before his fight against Mike Tyson in 2000 has any Brit indulged in the sort of rank defeatism displayed by Jenson Button last week.
But then, like Francis – who was decked five times before ending up flat on his back in round two – for Button, the line between defeatism and realism is virtually nonexistent.
“The way the car is at the moment, this package that is sat in the garage right now is not going to win a race,” said a despondent Button after his McLaren had limped into ninth place and a meagre two points. Actually, that was quite a good outcome: after qualifying tenth in Australia Button had said he would be “surprised and very happy if we’re in the top ten”, but despite doing so, the scale of McLaren’s problems was laid bare by the fact that he finished a minute and 21 seconds but a metaphorical country mile behind Lotus’ Kimi Raikkonen in the winning car.
Despite the fact that Button had resigned himself to the end of his winning ways in Melbourne – he had won three of the previous four races at Albert Park, including last year’s grand prix – his post-race comments were no fit of pique. Instead, he was simply accepting what was plain for everyone to see. The Englishman’s team-mate, Sergio Perez, fared even worse, finishing out of the points and almost two seconds behind Button after qualifying in a lamentable 15th place. Even fifth-placed Lewis Hamilton, who was supposedly leaving McLaren for an inferior car across at Mercedes, was over half a minute quicker than Button.
Button is not the only one who has been feeling the pain. McLaren have been used to winning – in the past 30 years the team has won eight constructors’ championships and had an average finish of second place – so the whole experience has been a chilling one for the Woking team. “Everybody is a bit down,” said Button. “A team like ours is so used to winning. There was shock around the place. There is an understanding that it is not OK.”
McLaren now face a huge challenge. With 2013 being the last year of the V8 engines, most teams sensibly went for an overhaul of their 2012 cars before the radical and expensive total redesign that will be needed ahead of next year’s Championship. Almost alone on the grid, McLaren went for root and branch change, and are paying the price for their boldness. “Australia was one of the hardest days I can recall,” said McLaren boss Martin Whitmarsh. “We were lacking overall grip, consistency, understeer. Poor ride. Very difficult day when we didn’t go forward during the day, which is a bit of a worry.”
Whitmarsh left out a few key failings – notably the disastrous shredding of the new Pirelli tyres – and things are sufficiently bad that the McLaren boss refuses to rule out returning to last year’s car. Most worrying of all, however, is the growing sense that McLaren’s problems may not be confined to this year’s car, that a more profound back story may be emerging.
Formula One is increasingly a land of the haves and the have-nots, and McLaren are in danger of finding themselves in the latter category. There are all sorts of off-track indicators, but losing the services of Hamilton and hugely-respected technical director Paddy Lowe to Mercedes, and their response to such a loss, has raised eyebrows.
In the past, McLaren have almost always had two of the world’s top three drivers (which at the moment means Fernando Alonso, Sebastian Vettel and Hamilton) racing for them, but the replacement of Hamilton with the young and inexperienced Perez has set alarm bells ringing. Most teams are forced to auction each seat for up to £30 million – the Venezuelan oil company PDVSA, for instance, pays Williams £29m a year for Pastor Maldonado’s seat – but McLaren have never needed to do so. This time, however, they have hired Perez rather than genuine contenders like Nico Hulkenberg or Raikkonen because the Mexican is backed by the hard cash of compatriot Carlos Slim, the world’s richest man.
There are other signs of the changing world order hampering McLaren. With the global economic downturn and F1 losing television audience last year, the days of vulgar, conspicuous spending are over, especially for McLaren – there is even talk of downsizing from their extraordinarily expensive three-storey mobile headquarters. Most ominously of all for a non-works team which depends on sponsorship, Vodafone last week announced that their decade-long £50m-a-year sponsorship of McLaren would not be renewed at the end of this year.
Outside the sport’s owners CVC Capital Partners, who have taken £4 billion out of F1, and Bernie Ecclestone, who has creamed off wealthy sponsors such as Emirates Airlines, there is an elite crew of well-heeled teams such as Red Bull, Mercedes, Ferrari and the like, but below that it’s a dog-eat-dog struggle to survive. Whitmarsh says that seven of the 11 teams on the grid are in “survival mode” and worryingly close to sharing the fate of HRT, whose Madrid headquarters was last month summarily stripped by the receivers and its cars sold for scrap. The Russian-backed Oxfordshire-based Marussia team, for instance, lost £50m last year, while Tony Fernandes’ Caterham team have attracted sponsorship to cover just one third of its £60m budget.
Whitmarsh, who took over from the flinty-faced Ron Dennis, is unlucky enough to have been left standing when the music stopped. Although the Woking team has been consistently competitive, apart from the 2008 title won by home-grown prodigy Hamilton, McLaren have not won a drivers’ title this century and last won the constructors’ championship in 1998. Last year’s campaign for the constructors’ title (they finished third) was bedevilled by reliability issues, and their ability to remedy this year’s disastrous start has been compromised by Lowe’s departure for Mercedes. On a wider level, Whitmarsh’s efforts to force austerity on the whole paddock in his capacity as the head of FOTA, the Formula One Teams Association, have been undermined by Ferrari and Red Bull siding with Ecclestone.
It spells hard times ahead. “There is a reality check coming,” said Whitmarsh. “Times have changed.” He’s not wrong.