Various seasoned F1 observers had a good old poke and prod at the MP4/28 McLaren launched today at its Technology Centre. ‘Hmm’, they murmured authoritatively, and ‘ah, interesting’, while everyone else tried really hard to work out how 2013’s car differed from last year’s fast but erratic charger.
At this stage, not by much. Because the truth is that the flurry of F1 launches – Lotus earlier this week, Red Bull on Sunday, Ferrari on Monday – is more about giving the teams’ sponsors and benefactors a fuzzy glow than unveiling whatever new aero twist or widget the back-room boffins have come up with. Besides, why play your hand at this stage, with six weeks to go before Melbourne? We’ll see more at the first test in Jerez next week, but the real intel won’t emerge until March 15th.
That said, today’s event gave a fascinating insight into where McLaren’s head is at right now. Long vilified for being a bit grey and soulless, I’ve got to say that these guys are much more relaxed and engaging than you’d imagine, and certainly more chilled out than they used to be. It’s McLaren’s 50th anniversary this year, and before we saw this year’s contender we watched a filmed elegy to founder Bruce McLaren. It bravely acknowledged his premature demise in an accident at Goodwood in 1970 by having an actor walk slowly through debris before pondering his wrecked car. Corporate films are often dreadful snow jobs, but this one hit all the right notes. Bruce, I only discovered today, had one leg an inch and a half shorter than the other, a disability that didn’t hobble his driving. The tragedy of his death isn’t going to hamper McLaren’s celebrations either, by the looks of it.
Bruce’s wasn’t the only ghost in the room. Lewis Hamilton has gone, lured by an almighty Mercedes pay-day and also the prospect of being way ahead of the curve when next year’s V6 turbo hits the track – Mercedes has been developing it for two years now, and McLaren will be merely a customer in 2014 – and the regulations change massively. For all that today’s launch was a breezy affair, Lewis’s absence was palpable. Sergio Perez is a likeable, laid-back guy – he even admitted he often fell asleep during winter testing because he hated the cold weather – but he wasn’t wearing the McLaren overalls with quite the same panache as Lewis. Maybe he’ll grow into them. Hamilton, complicated and petulant, remains probably the fastest driver in F1 in terms of pure, unadulterated speed. Losing him is bound to hurt, isn’t it?
‘Lewis was a great asset,’ Team Principal Martin Whitmarsh conceded, ‘and we have many great memories of our time working together. But we honestly haven’t spent much time mulling over them this past few weeks. That, perhaps sadly, is the nature of motor racing. You don’t tend to dwell on the past, you look forward…’
Also absent today was McLaren technical director Paddy Lowe, subject of a concerted bid by Mercedes. Whitmarsh confirmed that Lowe will be staying at McLaren for another year, but said that his future was ‘less certain’ beyond that. So why wasn’t he there today? ‘I think it is good that Paddy concentrates on doing his job,’ Whitmarsh said more than a little firmly. ‘It was his decision not to be here today, I don’t think he wanted to create any embarrassment to his team.’
Hmm. I suspect that we’re more likely to see Lowe boasting about his rhododendrons on Gardener’s World before we see him ensconced on the Mercedes pit-lane ‘prat perch’.
In fact, what with Lewis and now Lowe being snaffled, one wonders just how friendly the relationship between Woking and Stuttgart really is these days…
Which brings me to the P1. Jenson arrived inside the MTC on-board it, which appeared to be the limit of his experience in the car. ‘I drove it round the lake,’ he told us in full sarcasm mode when asked by the man from Top Gear – me – what it was like. ‘I’d definitely like more involvement with it. Chris [Goodwin, McLaren Automotive’s chief test driver] has done a great job, but sometimes you need a bit of youth in there… so I’ll give it to Sergio to do…’
Around 30 P1 customers were present today, including Jackie Stewart’s son Paul (who sort of denied he’d bought one), most of whom already had 12Cs, appeared to have had issues with Ferraris they’d owned (‘they fall apart,’ one of the guys said), and liked the Britishness of the P1. To a man, they all regretted not buying the F1 road car when they had the chance. There were rumours a while ago that McLaren was struggling to sell the P1; now it seems the order book is likely to be closed in a matter of weeks.
We’ll see Ferrari’s P1 rival at Geneva, with no word from either rival about just how many of these hybrid hypercars they really are going to produce. The final production numbers really matter when you’re selling a car for close to a million quid, and buyers at that level haven’t got there by making daft investments.
So that’s 2013: the year when the Ferrari v McLaren battle spills off the track and onto the street. Can’t wait.