Tuesday, 21 January 2014

All Change at McLaren

For a team that target both championships at the start of every season to finish 5th and without a single podium all year, 2013 certainly was not a year to remember for the McLaren team and its fans. The ambitious choice to start again with the car design rather than evolve what had ended the 2012 season as the fastest car backfired immensely, causing the team to instead focus its efforts on 2014 early. It was a gamble, and not every gamble goes well so even a team of McLaren's calibre can be forgiven for having 1 bad year. Think back only to 2009 when Lewis hamilton could only extract a pair of wins from the MP4-24, having won the drivers championship the year before, and coming close to doing so again the year after in 2010.

Victories in Hungary and Singapore were highlights in an otherwise fruitless 2009 season

The new rules that have been introduced for 2014 should mean that the extra development time gained by turning attention over to the MP4-29 early will be a welcome boost to efforts this season. Jenson Button will once again lead the team with a new young team mate in the form of Kevin Magnussen joining him. The Dane won the 2013 Formula Renault 3.5 championship ahead of fellow McLaren development driver Stoffel Vandoorne, and so joins the team with a lot of expectation on his shoulders, expectation that both he and test driver Gary Paffett believe he can live up to. It is an approach that succeeded with Lewis Hamilton's McLaren introduction and the team believe history can repeat itself.

An interesting team battle to watch throughout 2014

A crucial figure within Lewis Hamilton's debut season, and of course throughout most of McLaren's history, was Ron Dennis, who has stirred rumours of a team return after buying back stakes in the team. The McLaren teams eventual statement that Ron Dennis would return to the CEO role certainly got the tongues wagging around the F1 circus, and rumours stirring about the ramifications of his reappointment to the top of the team. There was no mention of current team principal Martin Whitmarsh's position within McLaren, and Ron Dennis only alluded to the potential changes he will be making over the coming months.

Ron Dennis and McLaren have enjoyed many successes together

The first change anticipated is in bringing Ross Brawn into the McLaren fold having left his position within the Mercedes team at the end of last year. The McLaren fans have been almost unanimous in begging the team to appoint Brawn into the team, knowing that he is synonomous with success in Formula 1 as well. Furthermore, both he and Ron Dennis have a good relationship with Honda, McLaren's new engine supplier from next season onwards. The integration of Honda into the McLaren fold will be pivotal in McLaren's future competiveness, making 2015 as important a season as the regulations overhaul will make 2014.

Out with the old team principal and in with the new?

With some of Formula 1's finest names seemingly converging within the Woking based team, the McLaren staff and fans were all brimming with anticipation on Thursday after the Ron Dennis announcement. The smiles were short lived however and the dream team news suddenly gained heightened emergency status by Friday, when news filtered out that the MP4-29, McLaren's 2014 challenger, had failed at least 1 of the crash tests. New rules introduced 2 years ago mean that all cars must pass all 13 structural crash tests before being allowed to undertake on track testing, and so the engineers are now in a race against time to have the chassis revised and through the crash test phase again ahead of the first test beginning on January 28th. What seemed like Ron Dennis missing the status became a necessary coup to bring McLaren from the brink of a potential second season in the midfield. It changes the complexion of the Ross Brawn introduction also, as it appears that blame is squarely at Martin Whitmarsh who will lose his job as a result. Should that be the case as expected and Ross Brawn turns down the McLaren role, then who would they turn to instead? Surely now it cannot come to that and Brawn's appointment is a necessity to get back to winning ways.

Vodafone enjoyed prime advertising space on the McLaren

The final puzzle piece required is the new title sponsor following Vodafone's decision not renew their sponsorship contract. McLaren had announced at the time (at the start of the 2013 season) that the new sponsor would be announced on December 2nd, after the season was over. This allowed them plenty of time in which to secure a deal and have the paperwork ready for the press release. There was no announcement on December 2nd however, prompting yet more speculation that the team had not found a partner willing to invest in the team who struggled at the exact wrong time. The announcement was anticipated to come on Friday within the launch of the MP4-29, if there is to be a new sponsor at all. The replica McLaren teamwear appeared on the McLaren Store on Monday 20th, with Vodafone's logos replaced only with McLaren's own logo. It is of course possibly to read too much into it, with the McLaren logo a potential placeholder for the new sponsor after the announcement in the future. The range does have even less orange on it also, seemingly disproving belief that the team will be switching back to an orange scheme seen in their early years.

No orange, no major sponsor

Interesting looking MP4-29 concept in classic McLaren orange

Although title sponsors are becoming more prominent within Formula 1 due to the large costs expected, McLaren are actually in a position where they could survive without a major partner for at least the 2014 season. A majority of their current expenditure is to Mercedes for their yearly supply of power units, a cost that will not be present next season with the return to F1 for Honda engines. The deal with Vodafone has been estimated as a £45Million a year deal, but the current Mercedes engine deal would make up to around £15Million of that yearly spend. The rest (and some) would be made up of the increase teams will see in the Formula One profit share / prize money awarded to the teams based on constructor championship standings. It is estimated on pitpass that the prize money McLaren will receive for their 2013 season is around £50Million, and they will be hoping for a better season in 2014, finishing closer (if not at) the front. Therefore potential sponsors to the team need not look at matching the £45Million Vodafone invested, but enough to see them as the highest bidder.

A lot of rumours suggest Sony will be the new title sponsor, and this livery would look spectacular

Although the team will unveil the car on Friday without naming a title sponsor and could compete throughout 2014 without a major partner, my expectation is that the honour is being saved for Honda's return as part of an engine plus money partnership next season. No secret stays that way though for too long in F1 circles...