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All eyes on McLaren, a year on from test nightmare

By Alan Baldwin

BARCELONA (Reuters) - McLaren expect the eyes of the world to be on them when Formula One's pre-season testing starts in Barcelona on Monday and with good reason.

A year ago, the sport's second most successful team endured a nightmare that led to a split with engine partner Honda and has been chronicled in a recently released Amazon Prime documentary series.

They ended 2017 ninth of the 10 teams.

Now with Renault, there is a new buzz around the Woking factory and high hopes about the striking papaya orange and blue car.

The Circuit de Catalunya may not give many real clues about performance -- that will have to wait until the opening race in Melbourne on March 25 -- but it can certainly flag up reliability issues.

"This is a big year," says executive director Zak Brown. "We will be one of the most-viewed teams... if everyone went 'Who is the one team that is going to have the biggest change?' it would probably be McLaren.

"So we know all eyes will be on us, but we are excited for that," added the American, who expects a fight for podiums and would not be surprised to win a race for the first time since 2012.

"We had a great chassis last year and everything is looking good in the development phase but the proof is in the pudding when you hit the track."


The proof from last year's first day was about as indigestible as a lump of leftover Christmas stodge.

"We cannot test like this," the team's double world champion Fernando Alonso, who was all smiles after giving the new MCL33 a shakedown on home asphalt in northern Spain last Friday, commented over the radio.

Racing director Eric Boullier, described the experience in the 'Grand Prix Driver' documentary as "physically and mentally painful" and openly expressed concern that his star driver might walk out.

"First lap, we had already used three engines," the Frenchman told reporters recently. Even if those used in testing don't count, three engines is now a driver's allocation for the season.

The documentary shows Jonathan Neale, chief executive of the McLaren Technology Group, telling it straight.

"We've done that experiment about just trusting what is going to happen," he said then. "We need to find a new way, we need to find a new plan."

A year on, with an engine that took former champions Red Bull to three race wins last year, there is much more hope around.

"Red Bull is the team that everybody will compare us to and the Renault team was getting very strong and they have got a great driver line-up so they are the obvious benchmarks," said Brown.

"If you look where Renault finished (sixth last year), and what Red Bull did, and that's including winning races, we have got to be there or thereabouts."

(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Pritha Sarkar)