Lowe sheds light on McLaren's F1 2011 rollercoaster start
27 April 2011
Paddy Lowe has offered an insight into what he concedes have been an 'emotional' and 'exhausting' past few weeks for McLaren-Mercedes in the build-up to and early stages of the F1 2011 World Championship campaign – a journey from despair to renewed hope, and one akin to the most turbulent, terrifying and thrilling of rollercoaster rides.
The initial version of the Woking-based outfit's new MP4-26 – rolled-out for the second pre-season group test at Jerez de la Frontera in southern Spain – was neither fast nor reliable, and persistent difficulties in refining it over the subsequent test days precipitated what team principal Martin Whitmarsh described as some 'dramatic changes' in a desperate last-minute bid to avert disaster.
These came in the guise of a completely re-designed floor section and a somewhat more simplified and conventional exhaust system ahead of the Australian Grand Prix curtain-raiser in Melbourne. Those changes – although on the face of it a sizeable risk – have paid off with interest.
Lewis Hamilton proved to be defending F1 World Champion Sebastian Vettel's closest rival Down Under, as the MP4-26 slotted immediately into the pecking order as the second-fastest machine in the field – a quantum leap forward over its well-documented pre-season trials and tribulations.
Team-mate, compatriot and fellow title-winner Jenson Button replicated that achievement in the following Malaysian Grand Prix at Sepang, before Hamilton went one better again to overhaul a tyre-hobbled Vettel for glory in China – what the British star rated as one of the finest victories of his career to-date. Even more significantly, McLaren is inexorably closing the performance gap to Red Bull. It has, all-told, been a remarkable turnaround.
“The three-week gap between China and Turkey has allowed everyone at McLaren-Mercedes to reflect on some incredible moments of selfless teamwork,” technical director Lowe told the team's official website. “The winter tests in February and early March were probably some of our most challenging experiences in terms of running reliability that I can remember in 20 years – it was an exhausting month for everyone at Woking and Brixworth.
“There weren't actually that many issues, but we kept experiencing a variety of failures with our new exhaust system. We would come to the circuit each morning thinking we'd fixed the problems of the previous day, only to be met with a fresh series of trials! Those days were very difficult for the team.
“That experience prompted us to re-design the exhaust package in time for the first race in Australia. In fact, first practice at Albert Park was the very first time we ran the car in that new configuration. It was also the first time we'd done significant mileage in a single day. Things came together just in time – and that was down to a combination of factors; we were lucky, I have to admit, but it was much more than luck.
“You have to factor in the skill of the team to work together in a very short period of time to push in a completely different direction [and] to understand all the different issues – the reliability, the performance. The skills of the team, all the tools they've created over the years – they all came through to our profit.
“Equally, look at how we all worked in China to get Lewis' car out of the garage and onto the grid with 30 seconds to go. That was also the result of incredible teamwork – 20 guys, all on the radio, working very hard and very rapidly around the car. In those instances, there's not a big discussion about who's going to do what; there are very few instructions, everybody moves seamlessly – they know what they've got to do.
“When you're in a crisis, people know what they're good at and how they can contribute. They're also respectful about what others can do. We saw that on a macro-level before Australia several weeks ago, and on a micro-level in China. For Australia, we had ten days; in China, just six minutes. In both instances, the team brought all their resources to the objective and rose magnificently to the occasion. It still makes me emotional when I think about it.”
Lowe went on to give a pertinent example of just how each and every team member mucks in, revealing that even the more senior and well-established employees such as himself are far from exempt from what might be perceived as rather less glamorous and more menial duties.
“I tend to arrive quite late to each race in order to maximise my time with the engineers back at the McLaren Technology Centre,” the 49-year-old Englishman explained. “At the airport, I usually see a guy from Red Bull Racing on the same flight and, when we land, there's a quiet competition between the two of us to see who's bringing through the biggest trolley-load of last-minute parts!
“For the Chinese Grand Prix, I came loaded with eight additional boxes – all full of carbon-fibre components immediately destined for the garage. I think my personal record for excess luggage was 19 boxes, back in 2007 – I think that still stands as the team's all-time record, too. Escorting that load through customs always reminds me of how a race team operates, that any individual, regardless of rank or status, must always be willing to help carry the load – quite literally in this case – for the team's benefit.”