McLaren have worked hard to avoid last year’s ‘abysmal start’ and it’s looking good so far – but the real test is yet to come
Any chance to visit McLaren’s Technology Centre, Sir Norman Foster’s swooningly beautiful kidney-shaped low-rise building, with its mirror-like lake and elegant landscaping, offers a treat to the eyes, particularly on a glittering winter morning. On Wednesday there was another beauty on hand in the shape of a new Formula One car, the MP4-27, with which the Woking-based team intend to recapture their pre-eminence.
Unveiled by Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button in a ceremony streamed to sponsors and fans around the world, the new McLaren-Mercedes conforms to regulation changes which ban last year’s exhaust-blown diffusers and impose restrictions on the height of the nose section. It is said by the team’s technical director, Jonathan Neal, to be an evolution of last year’s car, which started the season badly but had more or less caught up with its chief rival by the end of the year, winning six of the series’ 19 races. Button finished second to Sebastian Vettel in the drivers’ championship, while the team were runners-up to Vettel’s near-invincible Red Bull in the constructors’ standings.
“Our biggest problem last year,” Button said after pulling the dust sheet off the new car, “was that we couldn’t get in the laps in the test sessions because of reliability problems, so we couldn’t work on fine-tuning and getting the balance right.”
Martin Whitmarsh, the team’s principal, agreed. “It was an abysmal start,” he said. “We didn’t have reliability or pace. But we’ve put a lot of work into this car and we don’t think we’re going to see a repeat of that.”
The ambition for the coming campaign is to start on the front foot, confirming that the design decisions taken during the 12-month gestation period of the MP4-27 were the right ones. Last year’s U-shaped sidepods have gone, replaced by a more shapely design around the car’s hind quarters. The nose is more shapely than had been expected, given the stipulations of the new rules.
“It going to make a big difference, and it’s given the aerodynamicists a lot to think about,” Button said. “The new regulations take away rear downforce, but I’ve driven cars without it before, and basically you just rebalance. When I first drove it in the simulator it needed quite a bit of work, but I’m happy with the direction we’ve taken.”
In theory, a car with less grip at the rear should suit Hamilton better than his team-mate, who is said to prefer a car with even downforce front and rear. “Our styles of driving are a little bit different,” Button said, “but the way we set up a car is pretty similar.”
Hamilton emphasised the team’s ability to catch up with their rivals’ technical breakthroughs, as they had to do last year when they found themselves lagging behind Red Bull’s use of exhaust gases to increase grip. “We’re the strongest team in terms of development,” he said.
This year they will be hoping that it is others who need to do the catching up, but they are sharply aware that Red Bull’s standards are unlikely to drop. “They’re not suddenly going to build a bad car,” Button said.
The new McLaren will undergo its straight-line aerodynamic test in the next few days in the hands of Oliver Turvey, one of the team’s test drivers, before being taken to Jerez for the first test sessions of the season, from 7-11 February, at which point the world champions of 2008 and 2009 will get their hands on it.
“As you can see, it’s a beautiful car,” Button concluded. “Some of those you’ll see will not be. To me, that’s important.”
Whitmarsh had a quick retort to that. Formula One cars become beautiful, he said, when they start winning races.