A BETTER CAR? NOT YET
drew admiring glances when it rst ran at the opening pre-season test, where it looked innovative and quick. Since then it has not shown front-running pace. Like the Red Bull and the Ferrari, it couldn’t match Mercedes in Melbourne. Unlike them, it has a Mercedes engine – so the performance decit has to be in the car.
And despite the strong-on-paper 2-3 Melbourne nish, this shortfall has exacerbated the feeling that something is missing from McLaren’s design team. Was losing Paddy Lowe to Mercedes GP, where he is now executive director (technical), a mistake? It is, after all, hard to nd anyone in the paddock with a bad word to say about the softly spoken but gifted ex-McLaren TD. Some have questioned whether Lowe was the right man to replace Ross Brawn as Mercedes co-team boss – but only on the grounds that his abilities as a “leader of men” – in the patrician Brawn manner – are unproven. No-one, though, questions his excellence as a design director. “He’s a very clever bloke,” is the usual assessment.
Lowe’s replacement is Tim Goss and one has to wonder whether his promotion to that role from engineering director, shortly after Lowe’s departure, was instrumental in McLaren’s failure to capture James Allison from Lotus last spring.
The team were chasing Allison – and, indeed, they interviewed him. But in the end, despite the fact that it meant disrupting his family with a move to Italy, despite the fact that sources close to Allison say he would have preferred to move to McLaren, he went to Ferrari instead. Did he not like what he saw in the structure at McLaren? Did he doubt he would be allowed the freedom to change things that he has clearly been given at Ferrari? So it would seem.
On this front, McLaren may have a problem. Adrian Newey is committed to Red Bull until 2017 – and, one imagines, about as likely to want to work for Dennis again as Sebastian Vettel is to sign for Caterham. And the two men most regard as the next best technical leaders in F1 – Allison and Lowe – are newly committed elsewhere.
Button has said he feels the new McLaren has more potential than the 2013 car. That may well prove to be the case. But on the evidence of the start of the season, the MP4-29 is not a dramatically better car relative to the opposition than its predecessor. Goss and his team may be able to develop it into a winner over the course of the season. If they don’t, given the advantage the Mercedes power unit has over its rivals, some tough questions will be asked – and not just by Dennis. This is McLaren’s nal season with Mercedes power before they begin a new partnership with Honda. The Japanese company is back in F1 to win – and the net worth of the new deal to McLaren, taking into account a research and development contribution and the fact Honda will be providing free engines, is $100m a year.
For that money, Honda expects success. And a chassis that is clearly below the standard of those produced by the team’s main rivals won’t do.