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Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 December, 2003, 03:52 GMT
Bold new dawn for McLaren
By Andrew Benson
Motorsport editor

The new McLaren-Mercedes MP4-19
The new McLaren has set some scintillating times in testing
The turn of the year is traditionally a time for new beginnings, and the McLaren Formula One team have taken the concept to heart for 2004.

After coming within two points of the world championship with Kimi Raikkonen in 2003, McLaren are pinning their hopes of going one better next season on a radical, all-new car.

Last season's heroics were achieved with an updated 2002 car, the MP4-17D - partly because McLaren failed to make reliable the car they intended to race from mid-way through the season.

But the failure of the over-ambitious MP4-18 test car has given them a head start on the new season - it has formed the basis for the MP4-19 that will carry McLaren's title hopes in 2004.

McLaren are the only team to have had their 2004 car up and running before Christmas, and it has already been setting some scintillating lap times.

But McLaren technical director Adrian Newey, in an exclusive interview with BBC Sport, said it would be foolish to get carried away.

"We hope to [win the title], but you never know," Newey says. "We're still not exactly sure how much quicker MP4-19 is.

"Last year in general we were on pace slightly behind Michael [Schumacher's Ferrari] and Juan Pablo [Montoya's Williams-BMW]. So obviously we have to catch that up and cover whatever gains Ferrari and Williams make with their new cars."

McLaren technical director Adrian Newey
If we had got the new car out racing, it might have made the difference in the championship
Adrian Newey
McLaren technical director
The first signs, judging by the lap records set by David Coulthard and McLaren test driver Pedro de la Rosa in pre-Christmas testing in the MP4-19, are good.

But Newey knows that winter testing times mean little.

"It's nice to be out and running," Newey says. "David and Pedro like the car. But it's the usual problem. It's very difficult to judge lap times because this is a good time of year to set fast times - the conditions are right.

"Compared with 17D, we've definitely made a step forwards, but it is difficult to judge exactly how much."

To F1 aficionados, the pace of the new McLaren is no surprise.

Newey designed the MP4-18 with a clean sheet of paper, aiming for it to form the basis of a new generation of F1 cars for the team over the coming years.

And when Newey, widely regarded as the best motorsport designer in the world, introduces a new concept, his cars are often the envy of his rivals - as was proved with Williams' all-conquering FW14 of 1991-2 and the McLaren-Mercedes MP4-13 of 1998.

But with new concepts come new problems - as McLaren discovered in 2003.

The MP4-18 never raced because it was too fragile both on the track and off it. The car kept breaking down, and it failed a series of mandatory crash tests designed to test the strength of the cars.

David Coulthard at the wheel of the new McLaren-Mercedes MP4-19 at Valencia
The MP4-19 marks a new direction in F1 design for McLaren
The problems were a massive frustration for McLaren in general, and Newey in particular.

And they have made them even more reluctant than usual to predict what their new model might achieve.

But Newey will admit that he feels McLaren missed an opportunity last season.

"It's fair to say we underestimated the difficulties of getting a car to be reliable when introducing it mid-season," he says.

"Really, 19 is a de-bugged version of 18, to tell the truth. It has a few developments, but it is very much heavily based on the 18.

"We felt 17 had reached the end of a series [of cars], and 18 was a new concept. We felt it was a reasonable step forward.

"If we had got it out, it might have made the difference in the championship."

Some of the new developments on the MP4-19 have already been tested in race conditions, as they were fitted to the MP4-17D when it became clear the MP4-18 was not going to race.

But others will only make their debut in 2004, where Newey's new ideas will be tested in the heat of competition.

We've got to raise our reliability to the level of Ferrari and Williams
Adrian Newey
"The 18 concept was very much to field a car that was significantly lighter, with a lower centre of gravity and fresh thinking on mechanical systems and aerodynamics," Newey says.

Despite the apparent success of the initial tests of the MP4-19, Newey says the team still have "a couple of things to iron out on the handling" of the new car. And it is still not as reliable as McLaren would like.

But that was one of the reasons for getting the car out testing so early.

"We hope it will help," Newey says, "but the standard of reliability last year in the top three teams was outstanding.

"Both Ferrari and Williams were running new cars, and they had a very high level of reliability.

"We've got to rise to that level - reliability is so important, especially with the new points system that was introduced in 2003."

If McLaren can achieve that side of things, few doubt that the MP4-19 will have the sheer speed to mount a very serious challenge to win back the title that Michael Schumacher and Ferrari wrestled from their grasp in 2000.




SEE ALSO
McLaren gear up for title assault
23 Dec 03  |  Formula One
Coulthard bullish for 2004
30 Nov 03  |  Formula One
New McLaren off to a flier
28 Nov 03  |  Formula One
McLaren happy with new car
26 Nov 03  |  Formula One
McLaren grab Montoya
17 Nov 03  |  Formula One
Who wins from Montoya's move?
18 Nov 03  |  Formula One


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