McLaren will be delighted to see the back of 2013, their worst season in more than two decades, but with plenty of changes on the horizon for 2014 can they bounce back quickly from this disaster?
Boss Martin Whitmarsh was beaming at the launch of this year’s MP4-28. His team had made a radical change to their successful 2012 design in the name of progressive development. Building on the momentum of a strong end to the previous season, the team was convinced the new design would give more room to innovate than their rivals’ evolutionary designs and would deliver their best shot at a title challenge.
By the end of the year, however, the highlight was Jenson Button’s fourth place at the final race of the season in Brazil.
That finish did at least prevent McLaren from matching their lowest scoring season ever – only in 1966, their first ever year of racing when they entered just six events, did they record a season-best finish that was lower than fourth.
It was the 10th winless season in their history – the last being in 2006 – and the first season since 1980 that neither of their drivers had set foot on the podium.
It wasn’t just the races either. In qualifying, it was the first time since 2002 that they had not secured a single pole position and the first in 30 years that they had not even got a top-five grid spot.
Not happy stats for a team that is so used to winning.
But at least Brazil gave some hope with Whitmarsh admitting it was "exciting” to feel like they were racing again.
And it’s quite fortunate for McLaren that next season marks the start of a new era for F1 – giving them a golden opportunity to bounce back and avoid the kind of unarrested slump that has befallen former greats Williams in the last decade.
But what can McLaren do to turn things around and what obstacles are in their way to stop them?
McLaren is a well-resourced team, and they will need all the money they can get to plough into development in 2014.
That, however, could be harder than usual as they are no longer free-riders on their Mercedes engines – and next year’s units will cost a lot more than before. Furthermore they have also just ended a long lucrative partnership with title sponsors Vodafone.
That sponsorship will be replaced by a signed but as-yet unannounced brand come the start of 2014, but the net cash in the coffers is almost certain to be reduced. How much the spend goes down could well define just how well 2014 goes.
INVESTMENT IN PEOPLE
McLaren lost technical director Paddy Lowe to Mercedes earlier this year, a move seen as a hammer blow to the upper management but one that has also led to a bit of a freshen-up in the technical centre.
Whitmarsh admitted in Brazil that the team had not really developed the 2013 car “for four months” and had instead focused on bedding in new recruits and re-invigorating the design team with new thinking.
McLaren has been defining its weaknesses and hiring heavily to fill the gaps. Sauber’s Matt Morris has come in as new engineering director and the big scoop came with the signing of Red Bull aerodynamicist Peter Prodromou – although he will not arrive until the end of 2014.
And therein lies the problem for next year.
The team development is not focused on 2014 but on having everything in place to get back to the top when Honda becomes the team’s engine supplier in 2015 – something managing director Jonathan Neale admitted to in October, saying: “It is a series of moves as we head to 2015 with Honda to make sure that this team stays at the forefront of F1 and is set for winning ways.”
McLaren, however, must not overlook 2014 – because while their customer engine situation may make it difficult for them to race at the very front, they must at least establish a strong baseline from which to build in 2014.
Getting in as many of those key staff members, and gelling the team ready for a big assault on 2015 by establishing themselves in 2014, must very much be the focus.
CROSS FINGERS FOR MERCEDES
McLaren’s long-term comeback must start next year so the key to that actually rests with one of their big rivals: Mercedes.
With such emphasis on the power unit next year, success for any team will, more than likely, come down to whether they get lucky and have the right engine supplier.
Mercedes, Renault and Ferrari have all been working hard behind closed doors to create their best take on the new regulations, which with small turbo engines and two different types of energy recovery systems, will be radically different to this year.
One positive for McLaren is that Mercedes has always been one of the leaders in hybrid technology, with their HPE (High Performance Engines) division working with Germany-based industry professionals from the road car side to cross-create.
If rumours are to be believed, the new Mercedes unit will provide the best power to weight ratio, so at least if that is to be believed McLaren is at least in the right group.
INNOVATE AND SPECULATE
Given that Mercedes runs their own team, they are unlikely to be keen on giving away more than absolutely necessary on the engine design, so the teams they supply are likely to be at a significant disadvantage in comparison to the works team.
But this is where McLaren can often be strong.
The team’s engineers are thought of as some of the most innovative in the business – but it seems to be a bit hit-and-miss in terms of success.
Their F-duct was a unique solution that was quickly copied by their rivals and they have also led the way on numerous other smaller design trends in recent years.
But they have also made some big mistakes when trying to be clever, including the ‘octopus exhaust’, which was quickly ditched, and, of course, the entire car concept they developed for this season.
Indeed, with a strengthened design office at Williams, McLaren may even need to watch out for their former rivals once again, now they also run on the German marque’s power.
Only time will tell whether their approach to innovation for 2014 will be a success or a failure.
RELY ON A ROOKIE
Last but not least, teams will need massive input from their drivers in the early development stages of F1’s new era – and this is an area where McLaren could struggle.
Jenson Button has plenty of experience in developing cars, but some insiders suggest his feedback is not as in-depth as his rivals. Rookie Kevin Magnussen, meanwhile, will be more focused on learning the ropes than providing development direction.
On the flip side, while it was a gamble to bring in Magnussen over a more experienced driver, if there’s any year that it could work, 2014 is it.
Driving requirements for the new cars are expected to be so different to what F1 has had before that all the drivers will be learning the ropes, at least in the early stages.
So if Magnussen does truly have the raw talent to perform in F1, his lack of experience should matter less than it would in any other year.
So, what chance does McLaren have of that crucial comeback.
Out of all the factors, engine and innovation is key – so if the Mercedes power unit is good, and McLaren’s engineers can get a step ahead of its other users, there could be a lot more smiling going on at Woking next year...