Starting standing still
FEBRUARY 1, 2012
I can't remember my first McLaren F1 launch - which perhaps says a lot in itself. And, no; that's not because the power of recall has been dulled by nights in our local pub, the Three Horseshoes. I do remember being at the original small factory in Boundary Road, Woking, in 1981 and having John Barnard, designer of the revolutionary MP4-1, persuade us to pick up a bare carbon fibre chassis to demonstrate just how light this amazing innovation was. Other than that, and with the exception of last year's weird reveal in Berlin, the McLaren launches are precise, clinical and well-ordered. But hardly memorable.
Two years ago, McLaren squeezed the entire shooting match into the Vodafone headquarters and just about got the job done in order to please their primary sponsor - or corporate partner, to use the preferred business-speak.
Today, MP4-27 was launched inside the gleaming McLaren Technology Centre (MTC). You could tell this was the preferred option as the production was slick and effortless with quotes from the relevant people and no rambling discourses by sponsors grabbing the chance to be on message.
Modern communications also dictated the pace, the occasion being streamed on-line with the assembled company encouraged to use social media to their hearts' content. I couldn't help but think that must have been a touch off-putting for the speakers as half the media audience had their heads down focussing on thumbs and mini-keyboards.
What about the object of the exercise? To my non-technical eye, MP4-27 is a 2012 version of last year's car, modified and improved to maximise the latest regulations. The most fundamental change is the ban on blown diffusers and the requirement to have the exhaust, in broad terms, sweep upwards rather than exit low down and across the diffuser. This, in turn, has led to the most obvious change as the U-shaped upper surface of the sidepods has become redundant and given way to a more heavily scooped underside.
According to a colleague who knows more about these things than me, McLaren's insistence on basically persevering on a similar theme means the team has "yet to work out the secret of Red Bull's dominance." Quite how he reaches such a sweeping conclusion, I'm not sure. But McLaren's Technical Director, Paddy Lowe, assured us this car has been revamped from stem to stern.
It was even more interesting to hear Tim Goss, the Director of Engineering, say quite openly that McLaren were sharply focussed on whatever it was that allowed Sebastian Vettel to not only score 14 pole positions in 2011 but also to find extraordinary pace in the first two laps and open a two-second gap before the opposition could bring DRS into play. In effect, Goss was saying that, barring misfortune, Vettel and Red Bull had the race won at such an early stage.
Perspective can have a funny effect in the physical sense when a F1 car is lifted from the floor and presented to you, tilted at an angle at eye level. The car that appears low and mean when squatting on the grid or the garage floor suddenly becomes bloody massive! Huge! Perhaps that impression is exaggerated by the vast expanse of silver bodywork making up the engine cover but the wheelbase looks like it's come from a truck. Small wonder, you think, that drivers sometimes make contact with each other when buried in the middle of this vast piece of moving aerodynamic wonder.
On which subject, the rear-view mirrors now look solid and immense; a point noted by Lewis Hamilton. "They've changed our mirrors a little bit - so hopefully we should be able to see a lot better," grinned Lewis. "Felipe will be very happy with that!" a tongue-in-cheek reference to the numerous collisions between the two in 2011.
The latest mirrors are 150 mm by 50 mm. As a matter of interest, I took the opportunity to check out some of the classic McLarens on display on the MTC Boulevard. I could hardly believe my eyes when noting that the mirrors used by Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost on the fabulous MP4-4 were actually smaller than a credit card.
Hamilton and Jenson Button must hope they only need the mirrors to occasionally check how far the opposition is falling behind. Whether that will come to pass (no pun intended!) is anyone's guess. Button summed it up when he said: "We won't really begin to know what shape we're in until qualifying in Melbourne." As McLaren launches go, however, this was an encouraging start.
Maurice Hamilton , a freelance motor sport writer and broadcaster since 1977, is the author of more than twenty books and contributes to websites and magazines worldwide.
His weekly column for Grandprix.com was Highly Commended in the 2011 Newspress New Media Awards.