“Nice wheels” and “Vodafone is painted on nice this year”. That was the level of insight offered by Lewis Hamilton at the ‘reveal’ of his new McLaren-Mercedes MP4-26 in a Berlin shopping centre on Friday.
Extravagant Formula 1 launches are generally a thing of the past, but Vodafone Germany wanted to make a show this year and while most teams have limited themselves to test day roll-outs, McLaren flew the media masses to the German capital to unveil its latest silver machine.
But as launches go, this one suffered a bit of a misfire. As we waited on our ‘media platform’ in the cold, a film began to play silently on the big screen. It took a while for some to even notice this launch had started.
The film showed members of the public carrying bits of bodywork through the streets of Berlin, on the tube and up escalators. Then, in front of us a team of McLaren mechanics wheeled the incomplete racing car into the shopping centre and began to piece together MP4-26 before a murmuring audience. The ‘civilians’ who’d been seen carrying the bodywork pieces on the big screen entered the arena and handed the parts over to the mechanics to fit to the car. Finally, Hamilton and Jenson Button walked in to look over the car – for the first time as a complete entity, according to Lewis – and participate in a Q&A session with the German host. The effect was… underwhelming.
In the press conference (thankfully back in the warm), Martin Whitmarsh and McLaren’s three senior engineers, Paddy Lowe, Jonathan Neale and Tim Goss, offered a little more substance on 2011 and their new challenger.
The overriding conversation point was the introduction of the adaptable rear wing for this year, which will allow drivers to ‘trim out’ levels of rear downforce and decrease drag in FIA-designated parts of the track when they are within a second of a rival – thus increasing the chances of overtaking.
It seems incredible to be writing this, but people are talking about overtaking being too easy in F1 this year, thanks to this new regulation. The effect is said to be about 10 times more than we saw with the (now-banned) F-duct last year. Overtaking, so it is said, will become common and therefore meaningless.
Team principal Whitmarsh had an answer to the doubters (of which I am one – I think it’s a gimmick). “What’s important to remember is that there was a comprehensive survey of fans and one of the overriding issues it raised was that there wasn’t enough overtaking opportunities. Now some of us deeply involved in the sport might not believe or accept that, but you don’t go to the detail of asking everyone what they want and then when primary point comes out, not do anything about it. There was a responsibility placed upon us to do something.
“We’ll all have opinions about it throughout the year. But if you’ve got it, you can tune it. The extent and manner of how you deploy it, and when, that’s an easy thing now for us to tune.”
The drivers are reserving judgement until they have real experience of the new regulations, but Jenson did suggest that the satisfaction of a perfectly-timed overtaking move might change this year. We will see.
Meanwhile, they are unconcerned about the complications of having extra buttons to press this year, thanks to the adaptable rear wing and the re-introduction of KERS. Lewis reckoned it was “quite easy” to manage. Again, only time will tell.
As for the MP4-26 itself, its most noticeable feature is the heavily sculpted sidepods that waste away dramatically at the rear, in the quest for improved airflow to the rear end. As usual, the car that was revealed only gives a clue to the real specification that we will see hit the track next week at Jerez. The car will no doubt change again by the time we reach Bahrain for the first race.
At the launch, the exhausts – which no longer have a double diffuser to blow through this year – exited straight out the back. Tim Goss confirmed that it’ll be a major area of development this year.
The next few weeks will be intense for the F1 teams. With so much change and so much that is new, drawing an accurate picture from testing will be even more difficult than usual. We eagerly await the Bahrain GP for some real answers to the big questions of F1 2011.