Twenty years ago this week McLaren celebrated a new look for their F1 car with positively decadent abandon. Five thousand guests were at Alexandra Palace to be entertained by the Spice Girls and Jamiroquai and to watch the unveiling of the MP4-12 and the new silver and black livery that would replace the red and white that had become synonymous with the team over the previous 22 years.
Another new era will begin next week with the launch of McLaren’s 2017 car. A livery change is promised again but what matters most is the substance beneath the hype, because they are a team who have endured two desperately poor seasons and, for the benefit of Formula One, need to be competitive. The car will be revealed with less pomp at the McLaren Technology Centre next Friday, and a return to the distinctive orange livery of the 1968-1971 Can-Am and F1 seasons is strongly rumoured.
After the unceremonious ousting of Ron Dennis last year, this launch is seen as a fresh start under the new chief executive, Zak Brown. McLaren, it has been promised, will be doing things differently from now on. Gone too is the MP4 nomenclature, instigated by Dennis in 1981. The new car is called the MCL32, developed by a squad undergoing a reshuffle after the departure of the team manager, Dave Redding, for Williams. Change drives the sport, says their racing director, Eric Boullier, and McLaren, he insists, have always been about change.
But will it be change for the better in 2017? These are difficult times for McLaren and before even setting a time in testing, mixed messages are emerging that range from confidence, hope and optimism in what is being called a high-risk gamble, to the pre-emptive strike of downplaying their chances.
Brown’s career has been in motorsport marketing and so he knows a thing or two about managing expectations. He insisted McLaren would not win any races this year. His comments were swiftly questioned by Fernando Alonso, who was more enthusiastic. “I read what Zak Brown said but who knows?” he said. “I am keeping a positive attitude, preparing for the championship as intensely as ever and I will do everything in my power.”
Alonso’s physiotherapist confirmed the two-times world champion was training hard and is calm, motivated and has a positive mental attitude. This is par for the course for Alonso, but he is the most volatile part of the McLaren mix. He indicated at Mark Webber’s retirement tribute that he intends to compete in the 24-hour race at Le Mans and a third season of trailing around in an uncompetitive car may prove too much. That he has a positive attitude is understandable from one of the best drivers on the grid. How long it lasts is a different question.
More weight might be attached to Boullier, who said McLaren may yet prove to be “the outsider, the surprise of the season” and could be there to compete alongside the frontrunners. The chassis of recent cars have been strong and although starting with a new car and engine this year, Boullier is confident the difficult learning experience of the past two years has yielded progress.
At the centre of their challenge is the heart of the car, the power unit. There has been much talk that this season will see an aero formula but engines will still be crucial. Before Monaco last year the head of Honda’s engine team, Yusuke Hasegawa, said they had a plan to challenge Mercedes. By Spa, he told me they were optimistic for a major step forward during the winter, with the target of overtaking the opposition. Work had begun on the new unit early in 2016 and more and more resources were channelled into it as the season progressed.
On Wednesday there was a cautious warning that Honda had gone for broke. The 2017 power unit concept was “completely different,” he said. “It’s very high-risk, we don’t know a lot of things about that new concept. We know it will give us a performance advantage but the biggest risk is whether we can realise that potential this year.”
McLaren will be more than aware of what that risk involves: Honda’s radical size-zero concept, aimed at aggressively packaging the power unit for a chassis advantage that they brought to car on their return in 2015, proved to be a gamble that failed very publicly.
Four key figures and four different viewpoints, but does McLaren’s performance really matter? Yes it does, and this goes beyond parochial wishful thinking on behalf of a British team with a rich racing history. Of the teams who finished behind Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari last year, only McLaren have the budget and resources to properly challenge the hegemony at the front of the grid. Formula One needs that fight at the sharp end to be as intense and competitive as possible.
Shortly after the fanfare of that launch in 1997, David Coulthard was at the wheel for the team’s first win in four years at the Australian Grand Prix. It had taken three seasons for their partnership with Mercedes engines to bear fruit. A year later Mika Hakkinen had the driver’s championship and the team the constructors’ title. Four years have passed since they last won a race, and they and the sport badly need this season’s considerably low-key reboot to deliver a similar surge in fortunes.
Whether it will depends on which player at McLaren proves most prophetic.