Keep Calm and Carry On: McLaren, and F1’s Off-Season Madness

January 18, 2011

From the moment the first engine is fired up at pre-season testing, to the point the last transporter leaves the final circuit of the season, Formula 1 generates an endless stream of stories, whether reporting on races, politics, technical analysis or otherwise.The amount of data the sport generates reflects the complexity that endears it to a global audience of billions.

Then, as abruptly as it started, everything stops; and millions of enthusiasts, used to being bombarded with more information than they can process, find the flow of stories dries up. For followers of F1, every winter is a winter of discontent, as the off-season descends with eerie silence upon the newsrooms of motorsport publications the world over. As with any addicts forced to go cold-turkey, the fans are grasped by something akin to madness.

Take McLaren’s recent announcement that their 2011 competitor, the MP4-26, would launch in Berlin on February 4th, missing the Valencia test. Across the world on motorsports forums, Formula 1 fans dying for news whipped up a storm over the car’s late debut.

With the power of Moses parting the Red Sea, the announcement divided the legions of forumers into two groups: those who felt it was an early death-knell for McLaren’s 2011 campaign, indicating the team had fallen terminally behind schedule; and, in opposition, those who felt it was a clever strategic ploy, hiding an innovation like 2010’s F-duct from the other teams for as long as possible.

Taken at face value, the announcement was nothing remarkable, certainly not worthy of the tin-foil hat response it provoked from many. Historically, several successful cars, including the machines which won the last two constructors’ titles and the best car McLaren ever produced, missed the beginning of pre-season testing, a fact which seems to have been overlooked by the harbingers of doom. Likewise, there’s little in the announcement to suggest McLaren have struck upon the next all-important innovation that must be kept from prying eyes.

It’s a small story reflecting a sensible decision. There is a compromise to be made between the time spent developing a car and the time spent testing it, with more development time available to those who miss the early tests. With much reliability testing now possible in-house thanks to advances in technology, on-track running loses some of its significance;  while the need to homologate tubs, with no development possible mid-season, gives teams extra incentive to develop the chassis as far as possible before setting their designs in stone.

Many were quick to dismiss the development  time McLaren bought with their late debut as negligible, but the nine days between the beginning of the Valencia test and the Jerez test amounts to 2.5% of a car’s yearly development cycle.  To put that into perspective, Sebastian Vettel’s pole position in Abu Dhabi was 0.03% faster than Lewis Hamilton’s. In a sport measured in thousands of a second, nine days is nothing to sniff at.

Everything points towards it being a minor story, one which shows McLaren to be taking a calm and considered approach to their 2011 campaign. In the madness of the off-season, there will always be those who try to blow such stories out of proportion to fill the gap left by the circus. Inevitably, some end up looking like clowns.

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