On the back of building a lackluster car last year, McLaren had one big announcement that managed to keep the enthusiasm of their fans high: Honda will be returning as their engine supplier next year. Exciting as the thought of F1’s most dynamic team-engine combination returning is, it is still a year away. With one year left of Mercedes power, no title sponsor (yet) and Ron Dennis back at the reigns, the Woking team has finally started a new chapter.
Dennis’ return as team principle might be the biggest news so far this year. Naturally, that brings an end to the Martin Whitmarsh era and the general lack of order that the well-meaning technocrat brought to the team. In tow, former Lotus team principle Eric Boullier has been snapped up. A great addition for the team, as the unimposing Frenchman has demonstrated the ability to run a team more effectively than anyone else on the grid.
Getting the team back to the way it was when Dennis was running the show will take some time. Already change can be seen trickling into the team.
According to many sources, Martin Whitmarsh was not a poor team principle; he just wasn’t very efficacious in keeping the team running as smoothly as Ron Dennis had. Last year’s MP4-28 was the manifestation of this mismanagement, being the first car McLaren had produced since 1981 that was unable to take a podium.
Preseason testing at Jerez proved a substantial shift from that mediocrity, as the team’s final Mercedes-powered car the MP4-29 set the pace early on. That speed was eclipsed by Mercedes and Williams at Bahrain, but the car still found itself comfortably inside of the top ten. Relative to other Mercedes cars, the McLaren did struggle in the desert heat at Bahrain, but still managed some good mileage. A strong platform in all areas and strong leadership should see the car improve rapidly in the early season.
One of the talking points about the car was the odd suspension assembly on the rear. Instead of narrow rods, the MP4-29 features large triangular fixtures that stall the air just behind the rear bodywork. In theory, this will create a low pressure area that effectively sucks the car onto the track, mimicking downforce without creating excessive drag. Whether it works as well as the team hoped or not remains to be seen.
Jenson Button – A rough season for the classy champion
No driver in history has been as chronically underestimated as Jenson Button. When he first joined McLaren in 2010, the world was expecting Hamilton to run roughshod over him. Though Hamilton was quicker, Button pleasantly surprised everyone by keeping him honest the whole season. In 2011, Button actually bested Hamilton—the first and only time a teammate has done such.
Last year was a quietly strong year for the most experienced driver on the grid, as he led the team to overcome a potential upset by Force India and salvage fifth in the constructors’ championship.
This year, however, might be a bit harder for the smooth-driving Briton to keep an upper-lip. In mid-January, his father John passed away aged 70. An extremely constant and supportive figure throughout his career, the loss has been described by Button as a “stake through the heart”. No matter how calm and civil Jenson acts on the surface, he is still a human. The most experienced driver on the grid may be in for a mentally challenging season.
Kevin Magnussen – McLaren’s newest prodigy
Son of former Formula 1 and Le Mans driver Jan Magnussen, Kevin seems to be McLaren’s in-house warhorse for future seasons. Consistently quick in the junior categories, Kevin finally got the nod for F1 after winning the Formula Renault 3.5 series. He was so strong through the whole of the season that he could have skipped the final race weekend and still won over teammate and runner-up Stoffel Vandoorne.
Being the first rookie to be signed to a top team since Lewis Hamilton, it would be easy to conclude that Kevin is going to be an utter tour de force right from the start. That just might not be the case, though, as McLaren weren’t originally planning to hand him Sergio Perez’s seat. McLaren confirmed that they were originally looking to get him signed with a midfield team (likely Williams or Force India). It wasn’t until negotiations fell through that they decided to get him into the team.
Understandably, they didn’t want him to spend a year on the sidelines when he could be gaining valuable experience. While getting signed to McLaren for that purpose might not be as flattering as Hamilton’s signing, it still means the team sees a great deal of promise in the young Dane. He could be a strong new driver to rebuild the team around.
Jerez Total Laps: 245 Laps (3rd)
Button: 83 Laps
Magnussen: 162 Laps
Button: 1’24.957 (4th)
Magnussen: 1’23.276 (1st)
Bahrain Figures (Test 1 &2 Combined)
Total laps: 567 Laps (6th)
Button: 243 Laps
Magnussen: 324 Laps
Button: 1’34.957 (7th)
Magnussen: 1’34.910 (6th)