All eyes on Fernando Alonso and McLaren in Spanish Grand Prix

McLaren, one of the biggest names in Formula One, are having an awful time – but they are hoping their fortunes will change in Sunday’s Spanish Grand Prix, when they will have upgrades to both their engine and their car.

They have not won a grand prix since Brazil in 2012 and this season has been dire. They have not only failed to win a championship point from the opening four races but have not yet made it through to Q3 in qualifying. During testing in Spain in February Eric Boullier, the racing director, earmarked this weekend’s race as the time when the team would start to move forward. And their improved performance in practiceon Friday pointed towards a brighter future.

What’s new?

Everything. They have even come to Spain with a new graphite-grey livery, changing the entire look of the car. They will be using new fuel and have been working intensely on the reliability of their Honda power unit. They have also looked at the drivability of the car since the last race in Bahrain, and tweaked its aerodynamics. The success of the tweaks and upgrades depends on the personnel, too. A number of appointments have been made to beef up the team in the past 18 months. The most important of these was the arrival, at the beginning of last year, of Eric Boullier as racing director, while another crucial figure is Peter Prodromou, the outstanding aerodynamicist from Red Bull. Crucially the team have changed their old school culture and there is now considerably more input from their engineers.

What has worked?

Their performance in practice on Friday, when Jenson Button was seventh and Fernando Alonso 11th, suggested they could even fight for points .

This improvement suggests the team are now beginning to benefit from the arrival of Boullier and Prodromou, who have established a more coherent leadership, and there is a more consistent approach to their aerodynamics.

Here the decision to retain Button, at the expense of the less experienced Kevin Magnussen, has worked because the British driver has been able to use his considerable nous to give vital feedback to the engineers over the course of the opening grands prix.

What didn’t work?

The car still looks off the pace when you look at the other big teams, who have also come here with some upgrades. The Honda engine has been the biggest single failure. The Japanese power unit has had a number of reliability problems, with electrical and turbo setbacks. The engine still appears less powerful than the others but, because of the reliability problem, it has been difficult to drive the car flat out. But is the car itself good enough? And does it have to change to make the power unit a better fit?

The McLaren view

“We had a reasonable day today [in practice at Barcelona on Friday]. We’ve been pushing on all areas of the car. We have aerodynamic upgrades this weekend though there is still a huge amount of work to do on our systems. Some things at McLaren have stood the test of time over 50 years and other things need constantly reinventing. No business stands still. The sport is constantly changing and to stay at the top requires constant reassessment. The changes we’ve made in the last 18 months have had a very positive impact and ventilated the organisation. There is still work to do.”

Jonathan Neale, the team’s chief operations officer

What are their prospects now?

“The big shock was how far off the pace they were, initially in testing and then in the opening races. They started from a lower point than I expected. It surprises me that Alonso must have been told stories about how Honda were viewing things and that must have helped him in his decision to join them.

So you wonder how accurate they were with their forecasting. Leaving Mercedes was the right decision, though. Mercedes, understandably, were always going to look after their team first and customer teams second.

McLaren have made some good decisions on the people they have employed on the chassis side and they have strengthened their engineering base. It’s been a very disappointing beginning but they are convinced they will get there and I’m sure they will. But it will take time.” BBC F1 lead commentator Ben Edwards

Powered by article was written by Paul Weaver in Barcelona, for The Guardian on Friday 8th May 2015 18.11 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010