Days ahead of the launch of his team's 2014 contender, and amidst increasing speculation, McLaren Managing Director Jonathan Neale sat down for an exclusive Q&A with Pitpass.
Ahead of the biggest raft of rule changes in living memory, McLaren has taken the bold step of being the first to unveil its 2014 contender. We asked how things are progressing ahead of the MP4-29's launch.
"The 2014 technical regulations represent a fundamentally new direction in terms of powertrain configuration, and that degree of change has necessitated a very significant amount of high-level R&D work for all the engine manufacturers and, in turn, for all the teams," says Neale.
"As such, at this stage, before any of the cars have even been launched, let alone been run or tested, anyone who says he knows with any certainty how competitive his car is going to be is a very brave man indeed. That being the case, all I'll say at this stage is what you'd probably expect me to say: we're working extremely hard, we're meeting all the challenges head-on, and we're making good progress.
"And ‘progress' is the operative word," he continues, "because this year's development race, and the teams' ability to react to what they learn in testing and running, will be where the world championship will be won and lost - not through speed straight out of the box. That being the case, our immediate challenge is to establish a useful baseline for the MP4-29. If anything, what's most important this year is to start with a platform that's understandable and can be usefully developed throughout the season."
Sensing the next (obvious) question, again the subject of much speculation in recent days, he quickly interjects. "Oh, and before you ask me about our crash tests, at this time of the year it's normal for teams to be pushing everything to the limit to extract the most performance - and crash tests are no different. But anyway, we've passed them."
Another issue that has been the subject of much speculation is that of sponsorship, namely, will the Woking outfit be revealing a new title sponsor along with the MP4-29 on Friday.
"After seven hugely successful years as McLaren's title partner - which included 34 grand prix wins and a dramatic world championship in 2008 - Vodafone's marketers have now opted to focus their energies on non-Formula 1 avenues of marketing spend, having achieved all their objectives with their partnership with us," says Neale. "We're very proud of that partnership, by the way, and we're gratified that Vodafone's senior executives feel exactly the same way.
"We won't be announcing a new title partner when we launch our new MP4-29 on January 24th," he confirms, "but our roster of sponsors remains the envy of the pitlane. For example, Hugo Boss has been with us for 33 years, Tag Heuer has been with us for 29 years, Mobil 1 has been with us for 20 years and SAP has been with us for 16 years. More recently, we've added equally important blue-chip partners such as Santander, GSK, Johnnie Walker and Hilton.
"Moreover, and importantly, McLaren Group is a private organisation, not a PLC," he adds. "As such, whereas in previous years we've sometimes shown a very healthy profit, running to tens of millions of pounds, we don't have shareholders demanding that we do that every year, as PLCs do. Indeed, our shareholders don't take dividends - instead they're motivated by the desire to make the McLaren Group an even greater and even more successful powerhouse of technical innovation than it is already. The recent success and exciting potential of McLaren Automotive and McLaren Applied Technologies prove that.
"So, bearing all the above points in mind, I'm pleased to say that McLaren Racing will have a larger operational budget available to it in 2014 than it's had in any previous season in McLaren's history.
"We're in good shape," he adds with a smile.
Naturally, it would be remiss not to ask what the situation is following last week's announcement that Ron Dennis has been appointed Group Chief Executive Officer of McLaren Group, thereby leading to speculation that he is to (re)take the reins of the F1 team from Martin Whitmarsh.
"It wouldn't be appropriate for me to comment on their behalf," is Neale's not totally unsurprising answer when we ask. "Suffice it to say that, as I say, we're in good shape."
McLaren heads into this new era with Jenson Button, the Englishman in his fifth season with the team, and rookie Kevin Magnussen. We ask how the Danish youngster is settling into the 'family'.
"Kevin is settling in really well," says Neale. "He lives in Woking, and he's already well known to and well liked by everyone he's worked with here at the MTC, not only within McLaren Racing but within McLaren Marketing too.
"He seems to like being at the MTC - he trains in our gym by choice and is often to be seen on one of our treadmills or weights machines in the evenings, working out alongside mechanics and engineers and PR people and marketers and so on.
"He's a friendly guy, but he's intensely ambitious," admits Neale. "Having said that, he's very grounded too: he knows he's on a steep learning curve, and he's well aware that his team-mate is 14 years ahead of him in terms of Formula 1 experience. But, believe me, we have very high hopes of Kevin."