Kevin Garside: How McLaren would love to be contenders again on the waterfront at Monaco
The Way I See It: Monaco is the race they all want to win and a dispiriting place to fail
What a tip-top few days it has been for McLaren devotees. The association with Honda, which fired the team's golden Ayrton Senna-Alain Prost period in 1988, is resurrected and the date is set for the release of "Rush", the James Hunt biopic, which tells the story of the blond one's championship-winning year in 1976. All this and Monaco, too. Yes it's Grand Prix week in the Principality. How McLaren could do with a triple dose of good news on the waterfront.
A sunny place for shady people is how Somerset Maugham loftily dismissed it from the neighbouring perch of Cap Ferrat, from where this sneering son of the Establishment wrote his way into the English literary canon while simultaneously setting the cultural agenda suitably removed from the grubby social climbers in Monte Carlo.
There is much about the annual Grand Prix carnival that would have driven Maugham mad, not least the presence of Riviera Man, parading around the harbour in Gucci loafers, blazer and Hermes cufflinks with a high-heeled nubile half his age strapped to his arm, but he could not but have admired the authenticity present in the drivers.
McLaren's record here blows everyone out of the harbour with 15 victories to Ferrari's nine. It was here in 1966 that the team made its F1 debut, clocking up more wins since than any other marque. The chances of a 16th Monaco triumph is non-existent on paper, but if the weather is anything like it was at the Cannes Film Festival last week and the rain falls, there is a notional chance of victory that, arguably, is not possible anywhere else.
The test is not one of out-and-out speed but of precision. When those old Bugattis first diced around these tight, twisting streets in 1929 they had nothing like the speed or grunt possessed by today's prototypes, which makes the experience even more ridiculous. This place would never see the light of day on a designer's drawing board; too many walls, nil run-off area – which adds massively to the appeal.
Nowhere else on the sanitised calendar can you gain a real sense of what these boys are about. Stand at the entrance to the swimming pool section and watch the back end twist and leap out of shape as the drivers seek maximum use of the tarmac while staying out of a wall. And the noise. All those beauties on boats moored trackside diving for cover while trying not to spill the champers on the Chanel. Love it.
There is no escape either for the punters enjoying the balcony experience when the cars rip out of the pits with the hammer down into St Devote. The acceleration through the heavily shaded, narrow stretch is like little else in sport. You don't have to get cars to acknowledge the sensory overload, profound enough to have your fillings out.
McLaren is every bit as much the F1 jewel as Monaco, but in serious need of renewal. Though the formbook is heavy with success, the good days are receding ever deeper into the past. The last drivers' title was delivered by Lewis Hamilton five years ago. McLaren would have won the year before were it not for the cataclysmic Spygate controversy, when a dossier of Ferrari designs was found in the possession of a senior McLaren engineer, resulting in their disqualification from the constructors' championship and the loss by a point of a drivers' title for the taking. Before that we go back 14 years to Mika Hakkinen in 1999 for a championship crown. If second is first of the losers, as owner Ron Dennis always maintains, then by definition the team he acquired more than 30 years ago has gained unwanted expertise in this area.
His chosen successor as team principle, Martin Whitmarsh, is under increasing pressure to deliver, yet at the end of last season he allowed Hamilton, his best chance of success, to walk to Mercedes for a few dollars more. Not that Hamilton could have made much difference in a car way off the pace. Respected designer Paddy Lowe has also left the building to take up a senior post next year at Mercedes.
There have been rumours, denied by Dennis, that he wants back in the paddock to take control of the team. Clearly something needs to happen to stop the bleeding. The arrival of Honda as engine partner coincides with a shift in power train specification next year, effectively tearing up the present design template and starting again with a blank canvas. The change cannot come soon enough for Jenson Button and Sergio Perez.
Monaco is the race they all want to win, where the big sponsors turn up, where teams like to demonstrate sporting prowess while basking in the association of serious corporate muscle. It is a deeply dispiriting place at which to fail. Button took his maiden Grand Prix victory in a rain-sodden lottery in Hungary seven years ago. He must hope the variables are with him again, that the chips fall his way in Casino Square.
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