F1 Racing - - INSIDER -

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 decit 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.

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