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New McLaren breaks cover, but second half of the F1 season will really count

McLaren launched its 2016 challenger this morning, powered by a 'new' Honda engine, which features significant new design areas.

New McLaren breaks cover, but second half of the F1 season will really count

McLaren launched its 2016 challenger this morning, powered by a 'new' Honda engine, which features significant new design areas.

The message from the team is upbeat, even extending to their comments about the 'robust' commercial sponsorship roster the team enjoys, even when the car reveals many high-value blank spaces, such as the side pods. Chandon has upped the ante and, contrary to reports last season, Johnnie Walker is still visible on the drivers.

To be fair, McLaren does things slightly differently from other teams in that a number of its blue chip sponsors aren't interested in being large stickers on the car; they spend their money offline and leverage their sponsorship through the drivers, hospitality or another areas of collaboration with the team. They use McLaren as a way of being in F1 and having an F1 story to tell, in other words.

McLaren

But onto the car; it's a sleeker design than last year's. Peter Prodromou, formerly Adrian Newey's right hand aero man at Red Bull, has had more time to curate the aerodynamics than with last year's model.

Clearly the key will be the Honda engine in its second season; will it be more powerful, will the drivers be able to compete fully in all areas of the track with deployment of the ERS boost and will it be reliable? Fernando Alonso used three seasons' worth of engines last year. That cannot happen again.

But there is another, more subtle aspect to dealing with engine woes, which has a huge carryover effect on the chassis efficiency and the way the car works as a package.

The key question here is, at what point in the 2015 season did McLaren and Honda face up to their engine problems and set a path for 2016 design and architecture on the 2016 engine? If it was only in May or later, then this car will carry a number of compromises and carry-over problems, as the main architecture of a new F1 chassis design needs to be locked in around April/May.

When you are competing against teams like Mercedes and Ferrari, who have their own engine makers next door, you are up against cars that are conceived as a single entity; with the engine and chassis in total harmony. That is the key to Mercedes' success in the last two seasons and it's the reason why Ferrari is coming back strongly at them now, ahead of any of the other 'big' teams, like McLaren or Red Bull.

Ron Dennis, Christian Hormer

McLaren versus Red Bull spats

Interestingly, there is a delicious sub-text running through McLaren's release documents today, issuing a 'hands-off' message to Red Bull with regards to the Honda engine. Christian Horner pushed hard to get the Hondas and continues to seek a supply for 2017; he has successfully got the FIA to agree to a change in the regulations that the manufacturers must supply all the teams, so he doesn't have a repeat of last Autumn when Red Bull couldn't find anyone to dance with. But we haven't seen the precise wording yet.

Incidentally, words are chosen carefully at moments like today's announcement and McLaren's communications head Matt Bishop is a master of the subtext. McLaren is putting up two fingers towards Red Bull with statements like, "The striking and innovative MP4-31 chassis integrates the new Honda RA616H power unit, developed exclusively for the team."

Another is Ron Dennis' stinger, "We maintain an indefatigable commitment to the winning potential of a full works team. Believe me: the full works backing of a multinational automotive manufacturer is the only platform from which real success in modern Formula 1 can be achieved. As McLaren-Honda, therefore, we’ve vowed to work together, and to win together."

Christian Horner will have chuckled over his morning cornflakes at that. He nicked TAG Heuer from McLaren as a sponsor and persuaded the watch company to brand his Renault engine this year. For 2017 he would love to go one better and get a supply of Honda engines. Dennis will have sentries out with long handled pikes to try to stop that. We'll see what the wording of the 2017 FIA regulations says, regarding a manufacturer and the minimum number of teams it must supply with engines, in the next few weeks.

Watch out for Red Bull vs McLaren spats over engines and other matters in 2016. And, on the face of it, Red Bull is probably the level McLaren is targeting to race at this season.

McLaren

Both drivers are on message, with the predictable 'all for one and one for all' solidarity after a nightmare 2015 season. All eyes will be on Fernando Alonso in the next two weeks of testing. He's a keen poker player but he's not very good at hiding his body language 'tells', as a true Las Vegas high roller would.

If we see the hunched shoulders and the dark eyes, then things are not looking positive. I'd be surprised if he sat out the season on sabbatical, but better informed people than I believe it's possible if the car is a dud and Dennis hardly ruled it out in his media briefing in Abu Dhabi.

So what can we expect from McLaren for 2016? A better performance than 2015 for sure, but on the sliding scale from where they were last year to where Mercedes and Ferrari are, they could be anywhere. One would suspect that they'll compete around the top ten from the outset and score solid points on a regular basis.

It will be a season of two halves for McLaren. The new rules freeing up areas manufacturers can work on in development of their engines in 2016 mean that the brakes are off for Honda this year. They should be able to fix problems and develop quickly using their 32 tokens wisely. There are no longer any 'locked in' problems like Honda had last year.

This is McLaren and Honda's saving grace for 2016 and on that basis, although we haven't seen the car running yet, one would imagine that they should reach the podium this year with this car.
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