There’s no mistaking the biggest change at McLaren this year: Lewis Hamilton’s departure is an obvious blow to them.
But the impending loss of Paddy Lowe, who will almost certainly be spending the year on ‘gardening leave’ prior to a switch to Mercedes, is another setback for the team.
Without Lowe the onus of the development work falls to Tim Goss. Although McLaren were understandably eager to stress the importance of Goss’s work on their most successful recent cars, losing an engineer of Lowe’s experience is a major blow.
It will be felt even more keenly as the team embark on a season with a car which appears to be more ambitious than their rivals’ – one which team principal Martin Whitmarsh described as “uncompromising”.
On leaving the team last year Hamilton spoke of how he’d been impressed with their plans for the MP4-28 and would miss having the chance to drive it. While most teams have produced cars which are clear evolutions of their 2012 designs, McLaren felt the need to go further with theirs.
“If we started this year with the 27, last year’s car, with a few changes to it, if we’d developed that car through to 2013, I think we’d start with a very good car at the first race,” explained Jenson Button at the second test.
“Whether it would be better than the 28, I don’t know, but I think it would be a very strong car. But I think after three or four races you’d realise you are at the end of the development curve.”
“For us it was important to change the curve over the winter so we could see a new direction in terms of development throughout the year.”
When Button reeled off a rapid lap using hard tyres on a dirty Jerez track on day one of testing, McLaren’s rivals sat up and took notice. But since then its pace hasn’t been as apparent and the team lost considerable time in testing making set-up changes.
While still hopeful the car will turn out good in the long-term, a degree of pessimism about their chances at the start of the season has set in: “It’s a long season, 19 races, it’s about being strong over the whole season, not just the first couple of races,” Button added.
“I am still hoping that we’re competitive in Melbourne, it’s a circuit I love and have gone well at before in the last few years. I hope we’re strong there. But there’s a possibility that teams that kept the same car as last year and developed it can also be strong.”
That view remained after the final test. Team principal Martin Whitmarsh said: “It’s important to remember that our MP4-28 is a new and uncompromising design that we intend to develop aggressively throughout the year.”
“Undoubtedly, it has great potential ?óÔé¼ÔÇ£ and we fly to Melbourne determined to show well and to score points that should establish us in good stead for both the drivers?óÔé¼Ôäó and the constructors?óÔé¼Ôäó world championships.”
Car performance was the one area where the team were usually strong in 2012. Operational problems early in the season and unreliability towards the end of it wrecked their championship chances, and remedying those will be as much a priority as producing a quick car.
Car 5: Jenson Button
When Button joined McLaren in 2010 most people were probably not expecting Hamilton to be the first man out. But he’s off to pastures new and Button is now the incumbent welcoming a new team mate.
His last race alongside Hamilton showed he could be every bit a match for Hamilton on his day. But there were too many off-days in 2012 as he struggled with the vagaries of the early-season tyres. He is confident that won’t be happen again this year.
Button’s other main deficit to Hamilton came on Saturdays, when he was regularly out-qualified by his team mate, though the gap between them was often slight.
“Apart from two or three extraordinary qualifying performance by Lewis, Jenson was always very, very close in qualifying,” observed Pirelli’s motorsport director Paul Hembery. “He might not beat him but he was very close. And that surprised some people in the three years they were driving together.”
Nonetheless it’s clearly an area where he needs to raise his game this year. But with the 2013 generation of tyres likely to produce races with more pit stops, it may prove to be less of a disadvantage for him.
Car 6: Sergio Perez
“We could have won it!” exclaimed Perez within moment of taking the chequered flag at last year’s Malaysian Grand Prix. He’d just scored his first ever podium finish – and Sauber’s best result as an independent team in nine years – but he wanted more.
He’s been handed the opportunity to do just that with his promotion to McLaren. And to his credit, he’s been unflinching when it’s come to stating his expectations for the year ahead, saying that race victories and championship success are what’s expected of McLaren drivers.
But he faces a steep learning curve in an environment where his driving will be scrutinised for the slightest mistake. There was no shortage of those from him last year, particularly after the McLaren deal was sealed and he misfired to the end of the season without picking up a further point.
Perez’s progress will be one of the season’s most interesting storylines. McLaren are not averse to hiring unproven, junior talents and have the facilities and experience to get the best from them.
But it’s down to Perez to establish himself as the next Lewis Hamilton instead of the next Heikki Kovalainen.
McLaren championship form
McLaren in 2013: Your view
How will McLaren fare in 2013 having lost Lewis Hamilton and Paddy Lowe? And will Perez make the most of his break with a top team?
Have your say in the comments.
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Images ?é?® McLaren/Hoch Zwei, F1 Fanatic