McLaren’s fresh outlook
We have become accustomed to McLaren chiefs making bold statements about their season’s hopes and aims at car launches, even in recent years when expectations should probably have been tempered down.
Take Eric Boullier at the 2017 launch: “There’s a feeling around the factory that we’re about to turn the corner.”
McLaren finished ninth.
Or Zak Brown at last year’s unveiling: “We definitely view 2018 as the year when McLaren will move closer to the front.”
McLaren finished sixth, but the gap to the top-three grew.
But in 2019? It seems this is a different McLaren.
Not only has Brown made drastic changes behind the scenes in Woking but he also has a young, motivated new driver line-up in place, one without a world champion in its ranks for the first time in over a decade. That in itself has perhaps produced lower expectations, but this is a McLaren team with a fresh outlook and understanding of the enormity of the challenge ahead.
Brown refused to make outright predictions for the upcoming season, claiming this was now a “rebuilding process” and a “journey”, while sporting director Gil de Ferran admitted the key word for McLaren this term was “humility”.
“Obviously when we made the change last year, we were probably a bit over-excited about how quickly we would return to the front and we got that wrong,” Brown acknowledged.
The team’s CEO continued: “I don’t think it’s now or never, but it’s obviously a very important year, that we show a big step forward.
“We’ve looked at that mirror to understand where we went wrong, made a lot of changes, both structurally and operationally, and so is this a very important year to show forward progress.”
New faces breed new optimism
Brown and De Ferran waxed lyrical about Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris, declaring Carlos is ready to stand up as the team’s leader, and insisting Lando would hit the ground running.
Together, the pair “represent the new generation of Formula 1 talent”, according to Brown, who said they are “an integral part of the team and our collective effort to advance McLaren forward”.
Brown added the changes off the track – McLaren’s will have a new managing director and technical director starting this season in Andreas Seidl and James Key – will ensure Formula 1 is the team’s main focus.
“We needed to make sure that before we take on any other activities, that we have all the resources dedicated to Formula 1 because what we won’t do is have any distractions to our F1 team,” said Brown.
Seidl is set to begin work on May 1, while McLaren will confirm Key’s start date in the coming weeks.
The long road back begins here
The road back to F1 glory is now a mid to long-term project for McLaren, but it seems they are not expecting too many changes in terms of the pecking order until an anticipated major rules overhaul in 2021.
Brown spoke in depth about the current regulations, citing what he believed was a worrying ‘B team’ trend, while he also claimed McLaren, Renault and Williams were “staying true to the sport”.
“You’ve got a few manufacturers and owners that are spending a tremendous amount of money that we can’t compete with financially,” he explained. “And then they’ve created these relationships with these ‘B’ teams which benefit the ‘A’ teams, so they’re just getting that much more money.
“Everyone is playing within the rules but I think the rules have got away and allowed this dynamic that is not healthy for the sport. Those are going to change.
“So I think the next two years will remain difficult for anyone to catch the top two, three teams.
“The grid now is very strong. If you look back, the last couple of teams on the grid have been weak, but if you look at Sauber, Alfa Romeo now, and Toro Rosso, these are strong racing teams.
“We’re excited in the direction Chase Carey and Ross Brawn are taking the sport, we think that will level the playing field, not only for McLaren, but also the entire grid and help put on a better show for the fans.”
Sainz makes home at McLaren
Still just 24 but preparing for his fifth F1 season, Sainz is seen by McLaren to possess the perfect blend of youth, experience and speed.
The Spaniard, replacing his idol Fernando Alonso this year, also has a point to prove.
“I’m impatient to win but I don’t need to win now,” he said.
“I want to be part of this recovery plan, and I want to be part of this restructuring. What Fernando did last year was great but I don’t feel the pressure of stepping into his shoes.”
Sainz believes it is a matter of “when, not if” McLaren return to the front, adding: “I want to be part of this family for a long time.”
Sainz, initially on a two-year contract, has also moved to Surrey from Madrid in order to help McLaren as much as he can back at base.
“I’m really motivated in this challenge and I really want to lead this team,” he stated. “In order to do that I need to be around for whatever they need me for.
“From Monday to Friday I see it as a bit of a job, to be always around, to keep having new ideas, to be available for a quick run in the simulator.
“I’m just so motivated for this challenge that it just came very natural to move to the UK. I feel at home.”
How’s that for dedication.
A learning year for Norris
He arrives in the sport as Britain’s youngest ever driver with plenty of pressure on his shoulders, but Norris was typically cool and calm in his media session, cracking jokes about not wanting to “party” at the age of 19, while also backing his own racing instincts.
“I admire that I have that [youngest Brit] record and I’ve done well in every category to be in the position I’m in,” he said. “But I haven’t rang up Lewis (Hamilton), or gone out of my way to get advice from people I don’t necessarily know.
“I just try to be the best I can.”
What has been most impressive to McLaren is Norris’ maturity and willingness to learn and adapt.
“It was a different environment when Lewis came in [in 2007], we were winning races,” claimed Brown. “But I think Lando will hit the ground running and be on it right away. He’ll make mistakes along the way, but that’s alright. We’re confident in his abilities.”
“It’s going to be a learning year for me,” Lando told Sky Sports News.
“Sometimes, you just have to take your time and learn. Hopefully it can be a big building step up to next year.”
Facing the press pack, Norris continued: “There’s going to be things which I’m not going to be great at. There are going to be times when I make mistakes, 100 per cent.
“It’s very different when I get to F1, knowing that if I do make one small mistake, many more people are going to see it. There is more pressure and more scrutiny to not make silly mistakes. But it’s going to happen, no driver is perfect.
“There may be times when everyone thinks I’m terrible, or rubbish, or whatever. I’m going to go through those periods, I know. It’s just understanding that, and knowing what I should look at.”
He certainly seems prepared.
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(c) Sky News 2019: F1 in 2019: What we learnt at McLaren’s launch