Red Bull currently stands poised to have its driver take a fourth consecutive world championship.
To go back far enough in history to find the past four McLaren drivers' titles, we tick off Lewis Hamilton (2008), Mika Hakkinen (1999, 1998) and Ayrton Senna (1991); in other words, we have to go back 22 years to see as many McLaren world champions as we (likely) will have seen from Red Bull in the past four.
To find four consecutive McLaren world champions we have to go back to the 1988-91 run of Senna/Prost/Senna/Senna.
Yet in the decades since the Senna/Prost heyday McLaren has remained a team of the absolute front rank, enjoying unrivalled facilities and depth of resource. But there's something - some ghost in the machine - that has prevented that fact tallying with championship trophies. With such a big sample of years built up it cannot be bad luck.
Looking at the specifics, from 1992-97 - the Williams years - McLaren lagged in aerodynamic (and sometimes engine) performance to its rivals from Oxfordshire.
Adrian Newey was the architect of those Williams-Renaults and was recruited to McLaren in '97. Whether it was fortuitous timing or the difference of Newey's genius, two consecutive McLaren titles were immediately delivered.
In the Ferrari years that followed, McLaren was usually Maranello's main competition but many times fell victim to technical rulings that denied it an advantage: kinetic energy recovery, fiddle brakes, beryllium, torque-sensing differentials. All these McLaren innovations and more were banned by the FIA, in the first and last cases before they had even raced.
McLaren had to play second fiddle to Ferrari for years © LAT
The Schumacher-Ferrari titles (2000-04) whirled by thanks to a mix of talent and institutionalised advantage, the nature of which concerned Ferrari's then very close relationship with the sport's governing body.
It later emerged that in 1998 team boss Jean Todt had negotiated a technical-regulations rules veto for Ferrari (something that continues to this day). Any technical development that did not meet with Ferrari's approval could in theory be refused by the FIA. It is difficult not to see some of those rulings against McLaren's innovations in this light.
In early 2006 McLaren lost Newey to Red Bull at just the time the dissolving of the Schumacher-Ross Brawn-Todt relationship at Ferrari might have been expected to play to McLaren's advantage. It had produced F1's fastest car in 2005, but engine unreliability ensured that unofficial title was the only 'honour' it took that year.
In '06 it lost its way, but '07, as the talent within the now Newey-less system rose to the challenge, was looking good until that fateful Woking copy-shop visit that led ultimately to disqualification from the constructors' championship. Hamilton delivered the title one year later, but thereafter Newey's Red Bulls were in the ascendant.
In summary, McLaren has been providing the strongest competition to three different eras of dominance by someone else - Williams, then Ferrari, and now Red Bull - without ever retaining technical supremacy for long enough to make its own era, the last of which dates back to the late 1980s/early '90s.
The question is: why? The specific limitations of any given season have been clear enough. The bigger question is why there should have been this series of limitations; what is there in McLaren's DNA that over the years has scuppered its potential from being achieved, what traits in its make-up?
The Woking squad's set-up and resources are among F1's best © LAT
McLaren is aggressively ambitious technically, scientific and systems-driven. This applies to all F1 teams to a greater or lesser extent but to McLaren most of all. It has more technical muscle power than any other team within its facilities and backs itself to succeed, setting exceptionally ambitious technical targets.
With the wild expansion in size of teams in the late 1990s/early 2000s came matrix management systems, with vertical and horizontal reporting structures - the only way of keeping control of organisations that would otherwise have become unwieldy. McLaren fine-honed the science in a way that was very much in keeping with the perfectionist ethos of its ultimate boss Ron Dennis.
But such systems aren't perfect, and cannot be. They are not intuitive and occasionally require real-life people to intervene, to recognise when the system is subverting the cause and to tweak things accordingly, to allow a little human input - a 'fudge factor', something that is absolute anathema to scientists, and McLaren is by far the most scientific of all the teams.
McLaren's natural response to shortfalls in a system would never be to apply a fudge factor to make it work, but to further refine the system, to micro-manage.
This wasn't an environment Newey felt comfortable in and although some attempt was made to bend the structure around his abilities, he became increasingly frustrated as the proportions of the total surface areas of the cars that he actually designed grew smaller, at the insistence of the ever-more intricate management and simulation systems.
Red Bull was able to recruit Newey through granting him more technical freedom, to have control of the system. It's a much more simply structured team than McLaren, more old-school in many respects. It has deliberately prevented its overall technical direction from being led by systems - and instead uses them only to feed, not to lead.
Newey was key to McLaren's late-90s success © LAT
Former team members say that McLaren went further the other way upon Newey's departure, more systems-driven than ever. Eventually the system itself became so unwieldy that the team could lose control of it.
Combined with the team's penchant for aggressively high targets, this is what happened in the conceptualisation of this year's car, the MP4-28. McLaren aimed for a big jump in performance, from a car with a flow structure totally unrelated to that of the very successful 2012 design, and relied on all the tiny micro-managed components within the system to add up to the big number it had targeted.
But there were so many individual components within that system that a variance of error on each of them could add up to a very significant number in the wrong direction. Which it did.
"It didn't come together in a harmonious package," said Martin Whitmarsh last month. "We lost sight of the overall structure and we ended up with a situation where we were uncompetitive. The goal is to come out with a dominant car.
"There are a whole lot of studies that are going on all the time. The feeling was, 'Right, let's try to make a big step. Let's incorporate this, this, this and this'. We believed all the tests we'd done validated those concepts and the best thing to do was bring them together."
No correlation tools ever exactly mimic the reality at the circuit and the trick is inevitably to use a fudge factor in having them align. This will work acceptably in a well-honed design, the product of long development. But introduce a new airflow concept and the potential is there for that difference between simulation tool and reality to become significant.
Introduce lots of new airflow concepts and the chances of that happening get exponentially bigger.
The MP4-28 had new concepts of front wing, front suspension, sidepods and rear bodywork. Performance was being squeezed from each of those areas, each inevitably with its small degree of simulation error in the concept stage.
The 2013 McLaren has not lived up to expectations © LAT
The potential for each of those differences between simulation and reality to magnify the total as the airflow moved down the car was very real - and is in fact what happened.
But that's only the detail of what went wrong. McLaren's simulation tools are not inherently bad; in fact they may even be the best in F1. But what was very characteristically McLaren in this example was a) the ambitious target and b) the absolute belief that the systems would deliver.
For the final season of the current formula, every other team produced developments of their existing cars. By contrast McLaren decided to try for a big step, striving for dominance.
"We were greedy and overambitious technically," admits Whitmarsh, "and took too many risks that didn't bear fruit. Then we were not sufficiently diligent in managing the whole flow structure, in making sure there was enough synergy and cohesion between the different elements."
But this is merely what went wrong this year. These are symptoms of McLaren's personality and it is to that personality we must look to see why the team has underachieved over the years.
It was Ron Dennis's vision that transformed McLaren from a team on the brink of extinction when he took over to the fabulous colossus that it became. He invested in the expansion of the sport itself to make McLaren an F1 team the like of which had never been seen before. He was the harbinger of a new era, where teams were transformed from garagistes to mini-corporations.
Whitmarsh admits mistakes have been made at McLaren © LAT
But inevitably men of vision stamp their personality throughout their organisation. Ron is mechanistic rather than intuitive and this remains McLaren's personality today. He no longer heads up the F1 team, and in fact has not directly run it since 1997, but his beliefs and values are still at its core.
Dennis's personality was not best suited to dealing with the injustices inherent in the FIA's relationship with Ferrari a few years ago. He and FIA president Max Mosley antagonised each other and that was very damaging to McLaren.
McLaren's response to Ferrari's increasing dominance during the Schumacher years was to aggressively pursue new technical concepts, only to be frustrated at every turn by the FIA. The more the governing body tried to strangle the team's technical ingenuity, the more it responded with technical ingenuity in a process that must have burned a lot of people out.
Mario Illien, then in charge of Brixworth-based Mercedes Performance Engines, shared McLaren's technical ambition and in an era before standardisation of engine specs, rev restrictions or number of engines used, the company made aggressive advances. But in combination with equally aggressive aerodynamic targets that affected engine packaging and cooling, reliability was not usually a match for Ferrari's - something that cost the team at least the 2000 and '05 championships.
That adversarial, no-compromise relationship with the governing body hurt the team even more in 2007 when the industrial-espionage incident blew up.
A disaffected Ferrari employee had given a McLaren staffer a hugely detailed document of Ferrari's car: not very ethical, but the discovery was seized upon by Mosley. His reaction could hardly be described as underzealous as McLaren was fined $100 million and lost its constructors' points.
Had Dennis's relationship with the governing body's president not been so adversarial, the matter could almost certainly have been resolved with less pain.
Dennis rarely saw eye-to-eye with Max Mosley © LAT
A few months later Renault was found to have an ex-McLaren employee bringing with him technical details of the McLaren but received no punishment. A few years earlier two ex-Ferrari employees were found to have supplied technical details to Toyota and the matter was settled between the two teams without the FIA seeing the need to get involved.
In 2009 both Dennis and Mosley stood down from their positions, each having inflicted mortal wounds upon the other in a war that had endured for over a decade. It was not right that their poor personal relationship should have impacted upon the prospects of the team, but inevitably it had.
In that idealised refusal to accept the practicalities and imperfections of a situation, in that railing against perceived injustices, in that total belief that McLaren could prevail by force of might and right, was much of the attitude that, applied to the technicalities of producing F1 cars, tripped up the team.
On the track and off, McLaren expended huge energy in vanquishing everything that was against it. Ultimately this led to a Whitmarsh-directed team that is warmer around the edges and more accepting of reality. But the total belief in its systems is hard-wired in.
It's in many ways admirable, a very pure philosophy of a pursuit of perfection. But the real world has had this annoying habit of tripping it up.
How much the debacle of the MP4-28 will have informed the team of its weaknesses is difficult to say. But within it still is the stuff of greatness that could yet allow it to carry on where it left off in 1991.
In partnership with Honda once more, as it was then, the next McLaren era may be just around the corner.
For this and more on McLaren at 50, see the September 5 issue of AUTOSPORT magazine