McLaren-Mercedes should have won the 2007 F1 drivers' title, no question about it, with a car that was arguably the class of the field and the reigning double world champion and most impressive rookie in history on its books – but infighting and stealing points away from one another conspired to cost both Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton the crown to the benefit of grateful Ferrari rival Kimi Raikkonen, and without careful management, Martin Whitmarsh fears history could just repeat itself in 2010.
Whilst the forthcoming campaign boasts beyond doubt one of the strongest driver line-ups in recent memory – with the leading names generally ensconced at the leading teams, and on paper as many as eight competitors looking to be in with a shout of lifting the ultimate laurels – McLaren has to be considered at least the equal of any of its adversaries, with the last two title-winners in the shape of Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton constituting its driving strength.
However, though the all-British pairing might together be at least the equal of any other in the field, should Hamilton and Button similarly prove equal in relation to each other, therein may reside a problem. In 2007, Alonso and Hamilton were so evenly-matched that they ended up taking points off one another and allowed Raikkonen to snatch victory away from them at the last gasp ion Brazil.
Should any of McLaren's immediate competitors in 2010 emerge to have a clear 'number one' – and returnee Michael Schumacher at Mercedes is the most obvious candidate, whatever noises the team might currently be making about there being no pre-determined hierarchy – then the Woking-based outfit, with its traditional policy of only favouring one of its drivers once the other is mathematically out of the reckoning, could find itself fighting a rather unequal battle.
“I think it can be an issue to have two competitive drivers,” team principal Whitmarsh reflected, speaking at the launch of the new McLaren-Mercedes MP4-25 at the Newbury headquarters of title sponsor Vodafone today. “The philosophy at McLaren has always been to go out there and get the best drivers we can, because they drive the team on. I think in Jenson and Lewis we have two drivers who are very honest and very open. They both want to beat each other of course, but I think it's going to be clean, open and co-operative.
“They are really super personalities, both of them, and terrific assets to the team. They have a good relationship and respect for one another, and I think there's that trust there that you don't always enjoy between team-mates. I'm not worried about polemics within the team, but inevitably if they are nip-and-tuck and taking points off each other, it's going to be difficult. I do accept that if we are successful and rotating the wins then we might inadvertently aid a one-man team – but hopefully they will both drive us forward and ahead of the competition.”
The key competition for the team this year, some might say, is Mercedes Grand Prix, after the German manufacturer scaled down its long-term collaboration with McLaren in order to focus on officially reviving the mythical 'Silver Arrows' for the first time in more than half a century by taking over reigning F1 World Champions Brawn GP. Pointedly, whilst the absence of Mercedes Benz Motorsport Vice-President Norbert Haug from the launch was explained away by a lost voice, the lack of top-level representation from the luxury car maker spoke volumes.
It has been mooted that the three-pointed star's departure – even though it will remain heavily involved until the end of its present contract in 2015 – will do McLaren no favours at all, but Whitmarsh sought to play down the impact that it is likely to have.
“Mercedes have been fantastic partners for 16 years, and we are fortunate that they are going to remain partners for many years to come,” the Englishman underlined. “We will enjoy a different relationship this year, but I know that we will still benefit from great engines and will enjoy some great competition together, and we will have the same resources and facilities to develop the car as we have had in past seasons. It's not just about money – it's about efficiency, attitude, approach and processes, and we have all of those things.
“We know we must be at our best to beat the works Mercedes team, but we enjoy such challenges and are very much looking forward to the prospect of competing with them. I'm sure our friends and colleagues in Stuttgart want to see four silver cars at the front of every race – and I think they will look good together in convoy!”