McLaren has put its foot in it again with the shenanigans at the Australian Grand Prix. There has been endless commentary on the right and wrong of the situation, but few have pointed out the bigger picture issue. Simply put, what was McLaren possible thinking it was gaining?
Let’s take a look at what happened on the offhand chance you are not aware. The Australian Grand Prix was the first race of the season. McLaren Mercedes has already determined its new car was not competitive to the extent that Norbert Haug had suggested the car would not make it out of the first qualifying session. It did, but just barely and there was no longer any doubt McLaren had got the design wrong and probably blown the 2009 season. Then the race happened.
The Australian Grand Prix is nearly as much about survival as it is performance. As the first race of the season, reliability issues and overaggressive drivers usually trim the field down to the point that anyone just finishing earns championship points. That’s exactly what happened for McLaren. Lewis Hamilton drove from the back of the grid up to sixth place. With three laps left, Robert Kubica and Sebastian Vettel through away podium positions by crashing into each other. Suddenly, Hamilton was fourth.
Now it gets strange. The safety car came out because of all the debris on the track. Jarno Trulli was in third place in his surprisingly competitive Toyota. Being Jarno, he somehow managed to drive off course and Hamilton stayed on track and passed him. Trulli then came back on track. Hamilton then asked if he should let Trulli by and the McLaren pit boss didn’t know the rules. While McLaren thrashed around in the pits, Hamilton let Trulli by and they finished third and fourth.
Trulli was penalized after the race for passing Hamilton while the safety car was out. Trulli balked and said Hamilton slowed and let him past. McLaren was called to the stewards. Sporting Director Dave Ryan and Lewis Hamilton went to the meeting. When asked if they had discussed letting Trulli by or decided to do it, Ryan and Hamilton said no. The only problem was they were lying and the radio transcript proved as much. Hamilton was booted from the results. McLaren has been called in front of the FIA and Ryan has been fired.
There is no doubt McLaren and Hamilton lied to the stewards. Hamilton has admitted as much and apologized to the stewards, Charlie Whiting and fans. The biggest question is what the punishment should be. Critics want McLaren banned. Supporters want nothing to happen. Both miss the bigger point.
Why did McLaren even do this? It was the first race of the year. The point difference between third and fourth is a single point. McLaren had no expectation of any points coming into the race and should have been pleased with fourth place. Some have argued that a single point can decide the championship, but does anyone really think McLaren has a chance this year? A bad car is a bad car. No team in modern Formula One history has ever been able to turn around a bad design. The McLaren MP-18 was a dog and never saw the track. Remember the year Ferrari missed the design and Schumacher drove around in the back? A bad car design just cannot be turned into a good one. It doesn’t happen!
McLaren clearly got caught with their hand in the cookie jar. The team should be punished as much for its stupidity as its devious conduct.
Lemmy Gibson writes about Formula One for PullingGsRacing.com.