Tuesday, 4 March 2014

F1 2014 Season Preview: McLaren - Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

McLaren's ability to somehow daintily dance around championship triumphs, almost as if they were doing it consciously, is the stuff of legend. Despite being one of the sport's most prestigious and most lavishly resourced and supported outfits, winning but four titles of the last 44 available rather crudely demonstrates such a failing. But at least you used to be able to count on its cars being at the sharp end; being competitive; in the thick of the fight. That was until last season, when somehow the bone dropped clean out of the team's jaws. Even though it ended 2012 with the most competitive car out there seemingly, and there being relative rule stability, in 2013 McLaren sunk like a stone, never so much as getting a podium finish (or even coming all that close to one). This for the first time since before the McLaren International era, in 1980.

Photo: Octane Photography
And just like then there was a palace coup in response to it all, and also just like then it was a certain Ron Dennis who ended up in charge as a result. As far as Dennis and a few others were concerned the rap sheet of Team Principal Martin Whitmarsh was a lengthy one: the decision to go radical in the car's design in the last year before a major set of regulation changes, which backfired as intimated; the time taken to decide whether to stick with the MP4-28 or return to the previous, successful, machine; that having decided to stick rather than twist apparently underestimating what was required to make that car competitive; the failings of a car for which the various bits looked good in theory but never looked nearly as good together, possibly betraying disparate technical groups not interacting effectively; apparent lateness in finalising new technical recruits, which meant that they weren't able to feed into the 2014 car's fundamentals (including in the midst of it all missing out on James Allison); and an inability to attract a new title sponsor to replace Vodafone. That he sealed a Honda engine deal for 2015, while positive, got rather dwarfed. It wasn't much of a secret that Dennis has wanted to seize back the McLaren race team reigns ever since he was forcibly de-saddled in early 2009 (indeed he'd already had a few goes at it), but various events of 2013 combined to give him his opportunity finally, and he struck.

Martin Whitmarsh hasn't gone officially, but he has effectively, with him missing in action all the way through pre-season testing. And his job has in effect been taken by Eric Boullier, tempted over from Lotus to fill the Racing Director role. This has been viewed rather a coup for Dennis, Boullier highly rated and possessed with a strong track record established in difficult circumstances at Enstone, as well as with DAMS in GP2. While the choice of structure is interesting too (Boullier's recruitment part apparently of a wider overhaul), indicating a spreading of the management load across more than one person akin to what Mercedes put in place last year. And the word is that all of this has lifted Woking spirits considerably.

But some on the outside have doubts. For all that McLaren has been missing out on championships in Whitmarsh's time, Dennis while decorated had a rather sparse record in this himself in his later years at the helm too. He between the end of 1991 and his departure in 2009 achieved only four titles from a possible 34. This was attributed in part to him having a rather poisonous relationship with Max and Bernie, which tended to ensure that McLaren could count on little help (and perhaps much hindrance) from F1's twin powers. Max has since gone of course, but Dennis's relationship with his replacement Jean Todt was hardly better.

Dennis's abrasive style is well-known, and as well as alienating the powers-that-be has also alienated a few star drivers and other staff. And then there's the team's matrix structure, one that's attracted its fair share of criticism, that is big on systems and empiricism but perhaps works somewhat at the expense of human inspiration; it's thought to have suppressed Adrian Newey's creative juices and contributed to him running off from McLaren to the fledgling Red Bull. The architect of this matrix structure? R. Dennis.

But things looked up for McLaren early on in testing. The new MP4-29 appeared business-like in its aerodynamic detail, and it also contained the field's most notable technical innovation - the one that the rest are most minded to copy - with its rear suspension 'blockers' designed to energise the diffuser. They've stayed on the car since, which seems to confirm that they're working. The machine looked business-like on track too, it appearing fine-handling, reliable, setting impressive lap times and even the debutant Kevin Magnussen looked a lot like he belonged right away (indeed, illustrating all of these points, Magnussen set the fastest time of anyone in Jerez). And of course, in the Mercedes it has exactly the right power unit too.

Yet things ever-so-gradually seemed to taper off as testing proceeded. The McLarens' lap times drifted down the order somewhat - the feeling is that Williams and possibly Ferrari have usurped the Woking cars in the meantime - and even unreliability crept in before the end of testing with Button missing a lot of running in the final Bahrain get-together. And in this final test Button, perhaps surprisingly frank, confirmed that the car 'was not quick enough' and that there had been no technical upgrades since Jerez, which was down to an explicit attempt to develop a driveable car with a stable technical baseline that they understand. And while Button stressed that a big upgrade is on tap for the first round in Melbourne, the likelihood is that just about everyone else will have similar. Perhaps given the own goal of 12 months ago it's understandable that the team is exercising caution, but the possibility creeps that it's perhaps been just too conservative.

Whatever is the case though, compared with 12 months ago things are looking much rosier in the McLaren garden. Two cars in the top 10 of the grid in Melbourne, probably comfortably so, can be expected for starters.

Kevin Magnussen - Car #20
Credit: Henry Mineur / CC
Sergio Perez was dumped by the McLaren team at the end of last year after just a single season in Woking. What were viewed as sub-optimum performances from Perez were part of the equation that equalled his forcible exit, but another key part of it was the perceived quality of the guy waiting in the wings. Kevin Magnussen gets his big break this year in the sport's highest echelon, and does so as a driver very highly rated by his employers.

Of course, those of a certain vintage will associate Kevin with his father Jan: a man who arrived in F1 with a reputation as the next big thing, armed with a British F3 record that even made Ayrton Senna's look modest (14 wins from 18 rounds). But he rather fell on his face when he got there, in part via exasperating employers with his lax approach to the job. It appears though that while Kevin can count upon similar talent, his application is far the superior, he apparently taking on board the lessons from his father's experience. Kevin's commented, perhaps not for nothing, that his dad's 'never been a big part of my racing'.

And in testing he impressed everyone, not just within the McLaren team but also those watching him at work out on track. His speed and flair was considerable, as was his healthy willingness to push, but his gentle and sensitive throttle applications, feeling for the limit of adhesion rather than going over it and requiring reflex corrections, really got some tongues wagging. And as intimated his rounded, mature and cerebral outlook, with a very constructive relationship with his team, are other attributes of his. He's also confident, but in a good way, and not to the point of arrogance or conceit. By all accounts too in his championship year in Formula Renault 3.5 just passed his racecraft as well as his poise and decision-making with other cars around improved markedly.

Perhaps comparisons with McLaren's last rookie - none other than Lewis Hamilton - are inevitable, but sight should not be lost of how much tougher a cliff edge F1 is for rookies to scale these days: as an unintended consequence of testing restrictions put in place since Magnussen won't have anything like the 10,000km testing mileage before his debut that Lewis benefited from. Direct comparisons aren't really fair in other words. But even with the modern restraints the feeling is that Kevin Magnussen is well placed for his freshman F1 campaign. And a good year would be one where he gets into Button's ballpark, perhaps too beating him in qualifying with regularity, particularly so as the season progresses. One to watch.

Jenson Button - Car #22
Photo: Octane Photography
Just as is the case for his team, the conclusion of the 2012 season must seem a very long time ago to Jenson Button. Then he'd ended the year in good form - indeed he'd just won the campaign's concluding round in Brazil in fine style - was sitting in possibly the quickest car out there and his rapid team mate was on the way out of the Woking door, suitcase in hand. Many had him down as a 2013 championship contender. Not a favourite perhaps, but one in the mix nonetheless. But as we know, McLaren against all predictions plummeted like a broken lift in 2013, and in so doing it took the amiable Button with it.

There were plenty of good drives from Button last year that flattered his car, such as in Malaysia, China, Germany and Brazil - all delivered in the ultra smooth, unobtrusive yet when required crisply aggressive manner that is his trademark. His consistent finishing - scoring in 14 rounds - ensured that the likes of Force India remained at arm's length in the constructors table and thus spared McLaren even greater embarrassment, and his refusal to whinge or bitch in public or private was appreciated by the team too.

But also there were a few days in there wherein it actually didn't seem all that obvious that he was any better than the MP4-28, and some at McLaren started to mutter that with him no longer being cajoled by Lewis Hamilton's raw speed as well as now being lumbered with a struggling car that Button perhaps wasn't bringing his A-game every time. A year too with an unpredictable car, the balance of which would often vary, also rather ruthlessly exposed the old Button bugbear that he is undoubtedly one with a relatively narrow operating window, and that he struggles to make the best of things when he doesn't achieve such preferred neutral handling.

Some also wondered whether an impatient sort out of the car who'd bang his fists on tables and would wring the car's neck when out on track might have got better results too - in other words was Button the wrong man for the situation that McLaren found itself in? Whatever was the case, before anyone knew it Button's future at the team was the subject of speculation. He talks in excited tones about the Honda power unit to come in for 2015, but it's by no means certain that he'll still be around to take advantage of it.

Ron Dennis's return to prominence in the team - precluding as it does presumably a move for Fernando Alonso - keeps the most savage wolf away from Button's door at Woking, but the feeling lingers that he still needs a big season. We know however from much of the 2011 campaign as well as from early in 2009 that when Button feels that everything is right with the world he can put in performances that are a match for anyone, quite literally, and from testing it appears that the MP4-29 is one that gives its drivers a level of confidence and predictability that it predecessor never got close to. Now the ball's in Jenson's court; he can't afford to mis-hit.

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