Formula 1 car launches are great – even after all these years, the unveiling of a new grand prix car is still a moment I still look forward to, even if it can be enjoyed digitally rather than bibulously these days – but, even so, a launch can only ever tell you so much. Both teams and media are well aware that the unveiling of a new car – giving it an eyeballing, in effect – unearths far less than half the story. For it’s not until the cars arrive in sunny Spain and start on-track testing that anyone can even begin to get a feel for the shape of the season ahead.
For that reason, late January and early February is a time of year that always fills me with boyish excitement. In fact I’d go farther: there’s something about the renewal of the annual F1 cycle that’s gloriously refreshing; life-affirming, even.
For while it’s sometimes difficult to muster the enthusiasm to pack a suitcase for yet another distant fly-away grand prix at the end of a long and hard-travelled season (I admit I very rarely travel to the farthest-flung races these days), it only takes a few months of relative reclusion before my temporarily dormant fever for modern F1 returns. And getting on that plane down to southern Spain simply to watch a handful of cars rolling around not only seems like a good idea for F1 insiders, but it also feels like a must-do.
I’m not in Jerez this week, as it happens, but I bet I feel just as fervently as those who are that now is the end of the F1 hibernation period – a time of awakening and regrowth. And, more than that, there’s something indefinitely thrilling about seeing a new grand prix car, its bodywork fresh and gleaming, gliding out of its garage, onto a near-deserted test track, to begin its new life.
MP4-29 car launch: behind the scenes
To paraphrase Robert Duvall’s character in Apocalypse Now: “I love the smell of exhaust fumes in the morning…”
Now is also a time that’s filled with hope – at this stage of the season, no team has yet to lose a race, no car has yet to fail to finish one even, and no driver has yet been vanquished by his team-mate. In F1, each new year brings with it an eternal optimism that, this season, a corner has been turned; we’ll be stronger, faster, better.
We’ll be winners.
And that sense of optimism only begins to teeter and wobble once the cars finally take to the track, and pre-season hopes turn to fears. But even then all is not always lost, for that’s when the hard work really begins.
There’s an oft-told saying that a racing driver can instinctively sense whether his new car feels good or not the moment he first turns its steering wheel and pitches it into the very first corner on the very first lap. However, given the amount of complexity involved in running these cars – and the additional layers of obfuscation added by the introduction of 2014’s new regulations – I’m no longer so sure that’s valid.
There’s another oft-told saying that has it that “if it looks fast, it usually is fast”. I’ve always liked that, personally, which is why I had something of a deja-vu moment when I first caught on-screen sight of the new McLaren MP4-29. Its distinctive nose-hangers and muscular front end catapulted me back through the years to a point where I clearly remember taking a close look round the 1971 Brabham BT34 ‘lobster claw’, the first car built by triple world champion Jack’s old team after it had been taken over by some bloke called Bernard Ecclestone. At the time, to my non-engineer’s mind at least, there seemed to be no sense in hanging the water radiators out on stalks ahead of the front wheels; it all looked a bit makeshift and speculative to me; ugly, even.
McLaren Mercedes reveals its 2014 challenger: the MP4-29
Still, what did I know? Graham Hill drove the BT34 to victory at the 1971 BRDC International Trophy at Silverstone – his last win in an F1 car – and it notably took pole position in Argentina in 1972, the mercurial but superfast Argentine, Carlos ‘Lole’ Reutemann, at the wheel.
Having said all that, looks are important, because F1 is a spectator sport as well as an engineering exercise, and my first impression of the 2014 cars has not been an unalloyed delight. Their aerodynamicists’ obsessive need to manage crucial airflow around the cars’ front ends has resulted in what can best be described as a latticework of carbonfibre componentry on the inside edge of the front wheels. The nose-boxes too, subject to new and stringent height restrictions and crash-test limits, are pushing the boundaries of good taste, triggering comparisons with anteaters, badgers and proboscis monkeys as well as human nether regions inappropriate to list on a family website.
So much for looks... so what about sound? The controversial subject of engine noise has been a topic of debate for weeks and months. No, make that years (more on that in a paragraph or two). Yet, having not been trackside at Jerez this week, I’m reliably informed that, even if this new breed of 1.6-litre turbocharged V6 currently lacks that punch-you-in-the-guts whooooomph of last year’s 2.4-litre V8s, the fans in the grandstands aren’t going to appreciate a noticeable difference. Moreover, I’m told they emit an intoxicating turbo ‘fizz’; I’ve heard it referred to as ‘wastegate flutter’.
Test report - Jerez Day 3, 30 January 2014
And, let’s not forget, I’m absolutely sure that, once there are 22 of them lined up angrily on the startline in Melbourne – with 100,000-plus Aussies cheering fit to burst – few of us will be voicing reservations about their lack of a top-note!
Moreover, ’twas always thus. When the 2.4-litre V8s were proposed, F1 purists were up in arms at the loss of the 3.0-litre V10s. When, before that, V10s became mandatory, F1 purists were up in arms about the loss of their beloved V12s. Now, as I say, F1 purists are saying we’ll miss the 18,000rpm top-note of the 2.4-litre V8s, of which the new 15,000rpm 1.6-litre turbocharged V6s will belt out but a pale aural shadow. Nonsense. The same F1 purists tend to whimper over their real ale, even now, about “the awesome wail of the ’70s Ferrari flat-12” and “the screaming shriek of the ’70s Matra V12”, which admittedly melodious engines used to run out of puff by about 12,000rpm, lest we forget. And don’t talk to me about the Cosworth DFV: yes, it was a great engine, and it won more than 150 grands prix, but in its initial 1967 guise it maxed out at 9000rpm and even the final mid-’80s version ran out of breath at 11,000rpm.
I’m not an engineer. I’m a journalist. But I’ve been intimately involved in F1 for more than 40 years, and I reckon the McLaren MP4-29 looks – and sounds – great. So let’s hope it turns out to drive as great as it looks and sounds. Go Jens! Go Kev!