When Lewis Hamilton asked if it was okay to have passed the off-track Jarno Trulli under the Melbourne safety car, had it not been for the paranoia that is ingrained in McLaren after years of being under the FIA's cosh, had it not been for that over-arching need to be seen as whiter than white, it would have replied, 'stay where you are' and argued about it later. Instead, it gave the "let Jarno repass" instruction that kicked off the whole controversy.
Not that it acted wrongly on the track, merely unnecessarily conservatively. It was what happened afterwards, as the team saw a chance to correct the over-caution, that got it into such scalding hot water. That had nothing to do with paranoia, everything to do with stupidity. But whatever was said in the stewards' room in Australia, the situation would simply not have arisen were the organisation not permeated by that paranoia.
McLaren's actions have long been coloured by a perceived need to be seen to be doing things by the book, even in a sport where stretching the boundaries of what's allowed is an intrinsic part of the game. This has created an underlying tension in the team, possibly amplified by the mechanistic, sometimes tortuous personality of its leader Ron Dennis. For all the best intentions, he can often do the wrong thing.
Think back to Montreal 2005 when Juan Pablo Montoya was denied a possible win by the appearance of the safety car. Even though there was time to bring him in, he was left out and team-mate and title chaser Kimi Raikkonen was brought in, thus securing the Finn a much needed victory in his title campaign.
Montoya - thanks to his earlier shoulder injury - was too far behind on points to fight for the championship. It made perfect sense for McLaren, as a team, to use the safety car to switch its drivers around. No-one - apart possibly from Montoya - would have held it against the team had it simply admitted it. Instead, there was some cock and bull story about difficulty with the radio.
The source of that particular false account was the paranoia that the team might have been penalised by the FIA under the guise of the ban on team orders. Even though it had been made quite clear that the ban was not going to be imposed in this way - it was to stop obvious 'mickey taking' such as Ferrari's in Austria 2002 - McLaren thought it might be in its case.
Who knows if it would have been? But that's not really the point: its sense that the governing body was just looking for an excuse to nail it - for anything - has actually several times led it to do things that have hurt it. No-one is whiter than white in this game, it's not that sort of game. But the difference is that this is generally accepted elsewhere, whereas at McLaren there has often been a misguided attempt - by Dennis - to insist that it was. Which has led to trouble.
New team principal Martin Whitmarsh is more intuitive than Dennis and, given time, will undoubtedly be able to rid the team of this constant tension. But in the meantime the team has lost the services of a loyal and trusted lieutenant, Davey Ryan, and maybe more. Coming so soon on top of Stepney-gate - another situation worsened by that attitude - it's potentially devastating to the team's image. For no good reason.
Yes, the spark that led to this situation was unbelievably innocuous and it's difficult to see how this could have led to such a spectacular series of collapses. But it's more readily understandable if you view the team's psychological state as a combustible mixture just waiting for the slightest spark.
Jarno Trulli going off on cold tyres under the Melbourne safety car was that spark, but it could have come from anywhere. It was just waiting to happen.
To continue reading this feature, subscribe to Autosport Plus today.
Are you an Autosport magazine subscriber? Activate your online account
- Your Autosport Plus subscription includes:
- Unlimited access to Autosport's news - no monthly cap.
- Read the best motorsport features, analysis and opinion.
- Explore Forix, our comprehensive motorsport stats database.
- Choose from a monthly or yearly membership.