Formula 1 News

F1 2014 Season Team Preview: McLaren - Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

Ron Dennis returns with the goal of bringing the team back to its past glory days, but that won't be easy.
Monday, March 10, 2014

March 10th, 2014 (F1plus/Graham Keilloh).- McLaren's ability to somehow daintily dance around championship triumphs, almost as if they were doing it consciously, is the stuff of legend.

Despite being one of the sport's most prestigious and most lavishly resourced and supported outfits, winning but four titles of the last 44 available rather crudely demonstrates such a failing. But at least you used to be able to count on its cars being at the sharp end; being competitive; in the thick of the fight. That was until last season, when somehow the bone dropped clean out of the team's jaws.

Even though it ended 2012 with the most competitive car out there seemingly, and there being relative rule stability, in 2013 McLaren sunk like a stone, never so much as getting a podium finish (or even coming all that close to one). This for the first time since before the McLaren International era, in 1980.

Just like then there was a palace coup in response to it all, and also just like then it was a certain Ron Dennis who ended up in charge as a result.

As far as Dennis and a few others were concerned the rap sheet of Team Principal Martin Whitmarsh was a lengthy one.

From the decision to go radical in the car's design in the last year before a major set of regulation changes, which backfired as intimated from the time taken to decide whether to stick with the MP4-28 or return to the previous, successful, machine.

Having decided to stick rather than twist apparently underestimating what was required to make that car competitive magnified the failings of a car for which the various bits looked good in theory but never looked nearly as good together, possibly betraying disparate technical groups not interacting effectively.

Add to all this the apparent lateness in finalising new technical recruits, which meant that they weren't able to feed into the 2014 car's fundamentals (including in the midst of it all missing out on James Allison).

And, how about the inability to attract a new title sponsor to replace Vodafone?

Then in the middle of all this ahppening, Mr Dennis sealed a Honda engine deal for 2015, while positive, got rather dwarfed. It wasn't much of a secret that Dennis has wanted to seize back the McLaren race team reigns ever since he was forcibly de-saddled in early 2009 (indeed he'd already had a few goes at it), but various events of 2013 combined to give him his opportunity finally, and he struck.

Martin Whitmarsh hasn't gone officially, but he has effectively, with him missing in action all the way through pre-season testing. And his job has in effect been taken by Eric Boullier, tempted over from Lotus to fill the Racing Director role.

This has been viewed rather a coup for Dennis, Boullier highly rated and possessed with a strong track record established in difficult circumstances at Enstone, as well as with DAMS in GP2. While the choice of structure is interesting too (Boullier's recruitment part apparently of a wider overhaul), indicating a spreading of the management load across more than one person akin to what Mercedes put in place last year. And the word is that all of this has lifted Woking spirits considerably.

But some on the outside have doubts. For all that McLaren has been missing out on championships in Whitmarsh's time, Dennis while decorated had a rather sparse record in this himself in his later years at the helm too.

He between the end of 1991 and his departure in 2009 achieved only four titles from a possible 34. This was attributed in part to him having a rather poisonous relationship with Max and Bernie, which tended to ensure that McLaren could count on little help (and perhaps much hindrance) from F1's twin powers. Max has since gone of course, but Dennis's relationship with his replacement Jean Todt was hardly better.

Dennis's abrasive style is well-known, and as well as alienating the powers-that-be has also alienated a few star drivers and other staff.

Then there's the team's matrix structure, one that's attracted its fair share of criticism, that is big on systems and empiricism but perhaps works somewhat at the expense of human inspiration; it's thought to have suppressed Adrian Newey's creative juices and contributed to him running off from McLaren to the fledgling Red Bull. The architect of this matrix structure? R. Dennis.

Boullier will have the tough task of reporting to Ron Dennis. 

But things looked up for McLaren early on in testing. The new MP4-29 appeared business-like in its aerodynamic detail, and it also contained the field's most notable technical innovation - the one that the rest are most minded to copy - with its rear suspension 'blockers' designed to energise the diffuser.

They've stayed on the car since, which seems to confirm that they're working.

The machine looked business-like on track too, it appearing fine-handling, reliable, setting impressive lap times and even the debutant Kevin Magnussen looked a lot like he belonged right away (indeed, illustrating all of these points, Magnussen set the fastest time of anyone in Jerez). And of course, in the Mercedes it has exactly the right power unit too.

Yet things ever-so-gradually seemed to taper off as testing proceeded. The McLarens' lap times drifted down the order somewhat - the feeling is that Williams and possibly Ferrari have usurped the Woking cars in the meantime - and even unreliability crept in before the end of testing with Button missing a lot of running in the final Bahrain get-together.

In this final test Button, perhaps surprisingly frank, confirmed that the car 'was not quick enough' and that there had been no technical upgrades since Jerez, which was down to an explicit attempt to develop a driveable car with a stable technical baseline that they understand. And while Button stressed that a big upgrade is on tap for the first round in Melbourne, the likelihood is that just about everyone else will have similar.

Perhaps given the own goal of 12 months ago it's understandable that the team is exercising caution, but the possibility creeps that it's perhaps been just too conservative.

Whatever is the case though, compared with 12 months ago things are looking much rosier in the McLaren garden. Two cars in the top 10 of the grid in Melbourne, probably comfortably so, can be expected for starters.

 

Kevin Magnussen during the winter tests.

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