Fresh from a late-night Eurostar back to London, it was another quick train down to Woking on Thursday morning for the McLaren MCL35 launch, where, unlike with Renault, there was going to be a car on display.
Despite being a team with a lot of momentum behind it following a clear step forward in 2019, the McLaren launch was, in a strange way, the one with the fewest question marks. Essentially, the message was clear: More of the same, please.
The car was rolled out onto the stage by fans — who had already had a view of the car — before the drivers and senior management joined the party. But there was nowhere near the fanfare seen at Ferrari.
McLaren has a lot to shout about after last season, with an exciting young driver partnership that has shown it can deliver, and a new team principal and technical director in place who weren’t there at the start last year. But this is a team that has learned from its recent history, and the launch followed a similar process to last year: The car was shown at the factory, the presentation was simple yet effective, and there were no outlandish statements.
In fact, rather than over-egging the potential for gaining on the top three, Zak Brown and Andreas Seidl were keen to highlight how tough it will be to match last year’s fairly dominant run to fourth place in the midfield battle.
And in order to try and achieve that, McLaren is not sitting still with its latest offering. There are clear differences between the MCL35 and its predecessor, with the sidepods significantly tighter as the team looks to make gains towards the rear of the car. Development of last year’s chassis was never a problem, but Seidl had previously pointed out that, to make further progress, an evolution might not be sufficient.
Still, comments from both Brown and technical director James Key hint at just what a big opportunity McLaren sees for itself in 2021. This is a team with an eye on challenging for honors again, and it knows that won’t happen this season given the stability in regulations. Much like Renault, a poor 2020 won’t be disastrous — although it would be unexpected — ahead of a big rules change.
When the drivers face questions about training regimes, social media and the cancelled Chinese Grand Prix, you know there are no obvious weaknesses for either to address. In fact, the only potentially uncomfortable moments came when Carlos Sainz was asked about a 2021 contract, and Lando Norris had to admit he doesn’t know where Vietnam is on the map…
When you take the car and its updates out of it, this feels very much a continuation of the McLaren that excelled last year, and the stability should give it the best chance of repeating its strong showing. In turn, that should allow it to turn its attentions to 2021 early on, and all the pieces are in place to maintain the positive momentum.
After all, if Renault is to be its biggest threat, McLaren at least appears a little more settled in terms of having a form of car ready to display six days before pre-season testing, regardless of Cyril Abiteboul’s protestations.
Toro Rosso posed a stiff challenge to the French manufacturer towards the end of last year and there will be a very different image for that team in 2020. Tomorrow morning will be a flight to Salzburg, where the rebranded AlphaTauri will be presented — a team that features a few more unknowns.