David Coulthard believes McLaren can return to winning ways this season despite a disastrous winter testing for the team.
McLaren have ended their 20-year association with Mercedes and switched to Honda power units for next season to rekindle a successful relationship with the Japanese engine manufacturer that spanned their most successful period in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
But the partnership has struggled for reliability with drivers Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button struggling to complete much mileage in the build-up to the start of the season at this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix.
But Coulthard, who won 12 grands prix at McLaren, warned his former team they need to turn their focus away from other projects in order to recapture their winning mentality, which has led to 182 race victories, eight constructors’ championships and 12 drivers’ titles.
He said: “Of course they can win races. If Red Bull Renault won last season, I don’t see why they can’t.
“It’s difficult to work out why they’ve not been doing well in past seasons. I think it’s about focusing on one thing. Take Red Bull Renault, they came in and got a high level of success as they were totally focused on Formula 1 cars and not road cars or whatever.
“When the McLaren F1 road car came out in the early 1990s, they dropped off performance and again that happened with the SLR. I think even if you delegate one part of the McLaren group away to something like that, that means taking someone’s time from board level, so the focus is not 100 per cent on F1.”
Ron Dennis performed a bloodless coup at the team’s Woking headquarters ahead of last season, which resulted in the ousting of team principal Martin Whitmarsh and saw him return to the helm of the team, pledging a greater push of resources on F1.
The partnership with Honda is aimed at bouncing back from their worst season in the sport for 21 years when they managed just two podium finishes, both of which came at the opening race in Australia.
“They were not the best of the rest Mercedes-powered engine for some time and there are things they’ve obviously not done right for a while,” added Coulthard “Mercedes stole a march last year and Renault and Ferrari were caught napping and are trying to catch up.
“Honda have had an extra year and have known they’re coming into F1 as long as the other guys. They must have learned something. Even though Mercedes will not have given McLaren anything they must be able to give Honda a leg up. McLaren can say ‘there’s the target, now sort it out’.”
The other major change for 2015 is the arrival of Alonso, who misses the first race of the season because of concussion following his testing accident.
Of that driver head-to-head, Coulthard said: “You’d expect Fernando to come out on top but I think we all thought the same when he came in alongside Lewis [Hamilton] at McLaren.
“Over four seasons I think JB outscored Lewis for what it’s worth. Fernando’s a different challenge – he’s just so persistent in races that he doesn’t have bad weekends.”
— Jenson Button (@JensonButton) March 11, 2015
Button had looked set for the F1 scrap heap just a few weeks ago with Dennis pushing for teammate Kevin Magnussen to take the drive alongside Alonso but a boardroom battle has seen Button signed for at least one more year.
“I’m very happy for Jenson,” added Coulthard. “It was the right decision. Kevin had to be consistently quicker than JB but it’s not played out like that. He’ll be back in F1 and I imagine it’ll be for 2016 so he just needs to analyse the hell out of what Jenson and Fernando do.
“But the whole driver situation at McLaren was a very awkward period to sit and watch. But they’ve sorted it and the reality is that if they eventually give Jenson and Fernando a good car – and remember Honda are in it for the longterm – they will win races.”
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