Welcome back to Race Chaser Online’s preview of the 2014 FIA Formula One World Championship! We continue our 11-day journey through the field today with a look at a McLaren team that hopes to rebound this year as we continue to lead up to this weekend’s season-opening Australian Grand Prix! Make sure to check Race Chaser Online all season long for all of your stateside-based news from the Formula One world!
March 11, 2014 — Story by RaceChaser open wheel correspondent Joel Sebastianelli — Photo courtesy Getty Images — When it was announced in early 2013 that motorsports powers McLaren and Honda would reunite beginning with the 2015 season, many assumed that 2015 would be a period of transition.
While that still may be true, an atrocious campaign last season means that 2014 must be transitional too, not wanting to risk another season away from the podium spots they’ve become accustomed to throughout much of the previous four decades.
2013 marked the first season since 1980 that McLaren failed to score a podium and finished fifth in the Constructors’ Championship. From the collisions involving ‘one and done’ driver Sergio Perez to the overall lack of speed from the Mercedes MP4-28, last season was unacceptable by the team’s standards. Once regular Grand Prix victors (Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton combined to win seven races in 2012), it didn’t take long for sweeping changes to occur across the team.
Although the addition of rookie Kevin Magnussen made the most headlines, the moves off the track may have the biggest impact. New racing director Eric Boullier moves from Lotus to McLaren, and Martin Whitmarsh, who took over as the CEO of McLaren following Ron Dennis’ retirement in 2009, has been replaced by his predecessor Dennis in an overhaul of the team’s personnel structure.
The new Formula One season comes with new regulations, leading most teams to usher in a new approach to the sport. But for McLaren, the British team hopes not for a fresh beginning, but for a return to the greatness in their long narrative as a staple of the racing world—and the McLaren of the past may not be too far off into the future.
The Drivers: Veteran Jenson Button heads the McLaren driver tandem once again in his fifth year with the team. After posting eight victories in his first three seasons, the 2009 World Champion is hungry for a return to glory. Known for his smooth and graceful driving style likened to the legendary Alain Prost, Button isn’t known for making many mistakes.
Consistency will be pivotal in the upcoming campaign, which serves both driver and team well in this partnership. Even amid the week-to-week struggles of last season, Button battled his way into the top 10 in all but five races and only failed to finish the Malaysian Grand Prix (a race he briefly led) due to a disastrous pit stop error in which the team failed to properly secure a tire. Recent failures in form have little to do with Button, the undisputed top driver on the roster whose leadership is vital on a team fielding a rookie and in desperate need of improved communication.
Alongside Button is Denmark’s Kevin Magnussen. The 21-year-old served as a development driver for McLaren as he moved up the ranks of the international racing ladder that eventually culminated with the 2013 Formula Renault 3.5 Series title. McLaren aimed to place Magnussen with a smaller team in the F1 paddock to ease him into the spotlight—Martin Whitmarsh insisted that he shook hands with a fellow team principal in the paddock—but after the deal fell through, McLaren decided to take a chance on a young talent for the second year in a row.
Last year, the Sergio Perez experiment featured mixed results and a slow start to led to a sense of dissatisfaction from all associated with his race seat. Even with the lofty expectations and the similar set of shoes Perez was asked to fill in 2013, Magnussen wasted little time in turning fast times and heads by finishing atop the timesheets in Jerez and impressing with his immediate quickness.
The Car: The McLaren MP4-29 is a conservative approach to the radical new regulations imposed by the FIA from its similar rear wing apparatus to its moderate finger nose, but the preseason results leave the team relatively confident and in a favorable position heading to Melbourne.
“We’ve never had such significant new regulations before. Reacting to them and managing those changes while still pushing the performance limits has been an extremely tough job,” said McLaren’s managing director Jonathan Neale.
“We’ve been relatively pragmatic about it. We know that the need for consistency initially outweighs the need for performance—the winter tests won’t be about chasing set-up or refining the car; the envelope of performance is likely to be so wide, and so relatively unknown, that the winter—and to some extent the opening races—will be about understanding the operational boundaries of the car as best we can.”
This season will be the last for the Woking-based outlet under the Mercedes banner, but this season’s forecast appears brighter with the Mercedes PU106A Hybrid engine than with equipment from any other manufacturer. The McLaren was a dependable piece of machinery in testing, rounding out the preseason test sessions fourth in kilometers covered and as one of only five teams to reach the 4000km mark.
Utilizing the preseason is crucial for any rookie to acclimate to F1, and as counterparts Daniil Kvyat and Marcus Ericsson sat much of testing frustrated on the sidelines as their cars failed to function, Kevin Magnussen was able to surge to the top of the charts more than once and trails only Nico Rosberg and Fernando Alonso in seat time.
The Challenges: Kevin Magnussen appears to be up to speed, but he did make multiple errors in Jerez and Bahrain. Multiple spins are acceptable as drivers acclimate to new equipment, but the margin of error is much slimmer once the season gets underway. Drivers without minimal F1 experience who leap into the cockpit of a top tier machine have a mixed track record. The Dane might turn out to be great, but if his start is not instantly successful, the organization will need to be far more supportive than they were with Sergio Perez in 2013, who never really got a full chance to reveal his skill in just one season after transitioning from Sauber.
The Mercedes farewell tour shows promise, but as a new manufacturer gets ready to jump aboard one year from now, it may prove difficult for McLaren to balance both 2014 and 2015. There will be little carry over from this season to next year, and if the team wants to stay ahead, it may have difficulty balancing its current duties with a brand new set of challenges on the horizon regarding Honda.
The Strengths: Jenson Button’s ability to pilot the car without placing stress on the equipment will be a style that works well with the new fuel flow regulations. It is projected that there will be far less incentive to build a big lead as drivers conserve fuel and tires throughout the course of a Grand Prix. Button rarely wastes rubber, and the ease with which he drives won’t guzzle fuel either. Even if the MP4-29 cannot get directly to the front at the start of the race, the team has put together a reliable car with a reliable driver that can stay in the hunt especially with the help of a late safety car to close the gap.
Projected Result: Mercedes powered teams are favored over Ferrari and Renault is expected to be completely out of the hunt for victories until the European leg of the season gets underway in May. Staying alive and out front in the first handful of Grands Prix might make the difference at season’s end in the constructors’ title chase, a task Eric Boullier believes is achievable.
“Our aim with the MP4-29 was to deliver a solid and reliable platform, which we can develop throughout the season,” Boullier said. “In terms of full performance, we’re not there yet, but there’s more to come. There’s a hunger and belief that’s evident throughout the entire McLaren organization.”
The upside is high for McLaren and improvements will be seen, but anticipating McLaren to challenge for the Constructors’ Championship in 2014 is still a bit overzealous. Final Position: 4th.