Amid the widespread astonishment at how Fernando Alonso has found himself leading the world championship after two races despite driving the worst car Ferrari have produced for nearly 20 years, it has been somewhat overlooked that McLaren are topping the constructors’ championship.
Victory for Jenson Button in Australia, two third places for Lewis Hamilton and two front row lock-outs have demonstrated that the MP4-27 is not only the best-looking car on the grid, it is also the fastest.
This is quite a turnaround from the last three years, when McLaren have been off the pace at the start of the season, putting their title challenge on the back foot before it had started.
The man responsible for this turnaround is McLaren technical director Paddy Lowe, who is in charge of the team’s design and engineering.
A likeable, down-to-earth character, Lowe says “relief” is the first emotion he feels as a result of this impressive achievement after three years of struggling in vain to keep up with Red Bull.
He says: “There is a lot of pressure – people going around saying what you need to do is deliver a car that is quickest at the first race, as though we hadn’t thought of that, you know?
“You go and estimate what you think that involves with no certain knowledge and then you go and try to deliver it. It’s tough.”
McLaren driver Jenson Button tackles a rain-swept Malaysian Grand Prix. Photo: Getty
Ask Lowe how McLaren have ended up with the fastest car at the start of a season for the first time in four years, and he’ll tell you there is no “magic”.
In reality, there are several factors behind McLaren’s ability to leapfrog Red Bull this year and stay ahead of everyone else.
McLaren had a successful winter that was not affected by reliability problems with the car, as had been the case in 2011. That meant they could spend pre-season perfecting what they had rather than, as Lowe puts it, “fighting fires”.
Equally, Red Bull appear to have been more badly affected than most other teams by the banning of exhaust-blown diffusers, last year’s must-have technology, which the world champions are widely believed to have exploited more effectively than any other team.
For McLaren, starting 2012 with the fastest car is the culmination of a three-year battle to return to the top that began with the disaster of 2009, when they started the season more than two seconds off the pace.
That was the result of Hamilton’s intense title battle with Ferrari’s Felipe Massa in 2008 - which deflected resource away from both team’s new cars – as well as the introduction of the biggest regulation change for 25 years.
McLaren recovered well in 2009 to win a couple of races later in the season, once they had adopted the ‘double diffuser’ that caused controversy at the start of the year and led to Brawn’s championship win.
In 2010 they moved forward, but were still only third fastest behind Red Bull and Ferrari; and in 2011 they leapfrogged Ferrari but were still behind Red Bull.
At the same time, there was a re-organisation of the technical department undertaken in 2010-11, which has taken time to settle down.
“We came out (in 2011) pretty much in the same place we had been at the end of 2010,” Lowe says. “So Red Bull had made decent progress over the winter and so had we.
“You have got to do not only what your competitors have done over the winter but then a bit more and then some to generate a lead over them.
“But that is difficult when there aren’t fundamental changes in the rules for the car.
“You’d need Red Bull to go on holiday for a month, and then if you were working to the same general output you’d catch them up, but obviously they don’t do that so you’ve just got to push it.”
The same thoughts were going through the minds of the bosses at Ferrari. But whereas Maranello responded by undertaking a major change in design philosophy – which has backfired, notwithstanding Alonso’s win on Sunday – McLaren realised this would be a mistake.
“In general you are going to be reluctant to say: ‘I need to tear this up’,” Lowe says.
“Here and there we were quicker than a Red Bull and we were certainly close to them when we weren’t.
“The car performance at that point, given also there is not a big regulation change, is a consequence of a great deal of hard work. So it’s quite rash to throw that away in too many areas rather than just build on it and iterate further and further.
“That doesn’t mean you’re not constantly looking for new ideas and trying to make them work. (But) you have to make very sure that whatever change you make is going to be better.”
Lowe’s contention that there has been no miracle at McLaren, just good, solid development work, is backed up by the fact that other teams have clearly made even more progress compared to Red Bull than they have – such as Lotus and Williams.
In pointing this out, Lowe betrays the natural caution of the F1 engineer – an approach that is understandable when, as Malaysia proved, even having the outright fastest car is no guarantee you will win the race.
Hamilton stepped down from the bottom step of the podium on Sunday to tell the waiting media he needed to find more race pace to capitalise on his strong qualifying form.
Lowe’s “new challenge”, it seems, has already arrived.