Biggest Surprise of Formula One Season? McLaren’s Struggles

MONTREAL — The Canadian Grand Prix was the end of the first third of the Formula One season, and the teams have now raced on every style of circuit they will face this year, from the slow streets of Monaco to the high-speed power circuits of Montreal and the all-around track of Barcelona.

And the verdict on which car is the most versatile is clear: Mercedes has once again won the technology sweepstakes, grabbing all victories except for the Malaysian Grand Prix in March, when Ferrari won with Sebastian Vettel in the cockpit.

On Sunday at the Canadian Grand Prix, the two Mercedes drivers finished first and second for the fourth time this year, with Lewis Hamilton winning his fourth race of the season. His teammate, Nico Rosberg, finished second for the third time this year; he has finished either first or third in all the other races.

Sunday was the seventh of the 19-race season. The biggest surprise, and even embarrassment, so far is what is happening at the McLaren Honda team. McLaren is the second-most successful team in the history of Formula One, behind Ferrari. After two decades of a partnership with Mercedes, McLaren returned this year to the Honda engine that powered its glory years in the late 1980s.

Interested in developing the new hybrid engine of the series, Honda returned to Formula One this year after half a decade away, and few doubted that one of the most successful engine manufacturers in the series would eventually produce a winner.

But the engine has been plagued with problems at every race this year. The McLaren has been one of the slowest and most unreliable cars, and only Jenson Button has scored points for the team — at one race.

Button finished eighth, grabbing four points at the Monaco Grand Prix on the series’ slowest track. In Montreal, once again, the two McLarens failed even to finish.

“I guess it’s easy for people to look at today’s result and say we’re having a bad season, but that’s not actually the case,” Button said on Sunday, continuing the positive spin the team has exercised since the beginning of the season. “We’ve made very big improvements since the first race, in fact. You do have difficult days, and today was undoubtedly one of those, but that’s always the way of it when you begin a new project and you’re starting from zero.”


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The McLaren story is closely linked to one of the other surprises of the year: the sudden return of Ferrari as a contender — or, at least, as the second-best team.

Fernando Alonso left Ferrari to join McLaren this year. He had raced for the Italian team since 2010 as he tried to win a third season title, but he finished second a frustrating three times.

After a vast management shakeup at Ferrari last year — which included firing the top director twice, as well as the president — the team greatly improved its hybrid engine and the chassis in the off-season. It hired Sebastian Vettel from Red Bull to replace Alonso, and Vettel won Ferrari’s first race in more than a year in Malaysia.


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Alonso, who has no points this season with McLaren, has continued to say that he does not regret his choice to leave Ferrari despite his success there, as the Italian team still has to prove it can dominate as it used to when it last won the drivers’ title in 2007.

In Canada, Ferrari once again ran into technical problems with Vettel’s car. He started at the back of the grid in 18th and had to spend the whole race climbing up the pack, eventually finishing fifth, one spot behind his teammate, Kimi Raikkonen, who started third.

Alonso is not the only driver facing severe challenges this year.

The Venezuelan driver Pastor Maldonado has seen success in the past, winning the Spanish Grand Prix in 2012 when he was with the Williams team. It was Williams’s last victory, although the team is showing renewed strength since last year.

Maldonado moved to the Lotus team last year, taking with him — as he has to all of his teams — a large budget from a Venezuelan company that sponsors him. He is often considered to be a “pay driver,” someone hired primarily because of the money he can bring to a team, and that is not always viewed as a good thing. After he won in Spain in 2012, that negative connotation was reduced for a while. But little by little, Maldonado has renewed that stigma and also built up a new reputation: As a pay driver who costs his team more in repairs from accidents than he brings in from sponsorships.

Heading into Montreal, Maldonado held the worst finishing record this season, completing just one of the previous six races. And in the one he finished, in Bahrain, he ended up in 15th place.

But it was what happened throughout the six race weekends that forged his new reputation: Maldonado was involved in accident after accident in session after session, be it practice, qualifying or the race. It has even prompted a mock web page,

Finally, in Montreal, on a circuit that requires engine power above all, Maldonado drove a nearly perfect race in his Mercedes-powered Lotus and finished seventh, scoring his first points of the season.

“It was a happy day for us; Pastor scored his first points of the season after driving a strong and measured race,” said Federico Gastaldi, the deputy team director of the Lotus team. “This should be a turning point for his season, and we thank all his supporters in Venezuela and PDVSA,” the Venezuelan state-owned oil company that is Maldonado’s sponsor.

No doubt the most valiant team and drivers are the ones that have been spoken about the least: the Manor team, which emerged from bankruptcy over the winter. The team has taken part in all of the races so far — although it managed only to show up in Australia and not to race — despite reviving just weeks before the season started.

Its drivers, Will Stevens and Roberto Merhi, finished every race they took part in until Sunday, when Merhi’s car sustained a broken drive shaft, knocking him out. Still, neither Manor driver has scored a point this year, and the team continues to struggle to get beyond the last spots in every race.

But few would have predicted at the start of the season that it would be racing against McLaren to stay out of last place in the constructors standings — or that it would have finished more races than McLaren, too.

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