Can McLaren pull it off?

Trouble at the Formula One team and birthing anxieties at the big money road car business see McLaren fans on the edge of their seats.

Instead of updating last year's winning car the team opted for a rdical overhaul and seem to be paying the price.

Instead of updating 2012’s winning car the team are paying the price for starting again from scratch

This month’s launch of the P1 hypercar in Geneva contrasted painfully with the F1 team’s performance at last week’s Australian Grand Prix.

Instead of a straightforward update of its useful 2012 contender, McLaren designed a radical all-new car, trailed around in the race and finished either side of the points.

To add insult to injury, the electronic control units designed and manufactured by a McLaren subsidiary – and used by all of the formula one teams – proved inadequate for the job.

$75m title sponsor Vodafone had just already announced it was moving on, only months after the loss of superstar driver Lewis Hamilton and technical director Paddy Lowe to Mercedes.

There are still doubts over whether lead driver Jenson Button is capable of driving the team forward week after week. Bigger question marks hang over new recruit Sergio Perez, openly rumoured to have been signed purely because he’s backed by Carlos Slim, the world’s richest man.

Force India’s Paul di Resta hinted darkly recently he missed out on the McLaren seat because the team needed a pay driver.

While McLaren has won 182 races in its 50 year history, it’s painfully apparent it isn’t so good at world championships: no constructor’s trophies since 1998 and only three drivers titles in the time since.

Manufacturing cars is a notorious money pit

Manufacturing cars is notoriously expensive

Despite the monolith image, it’s all too easy to imagine why McLaren could be feeling the pinch.

Anybody who grew up in 1970s Britain knows exactly what money pits car companies can be. They certainly haven’t got any cheaper to make since.

The size of the high end sports car market and its vulnerability to recession make the hair stand on end while McLaren’s last foray into the business resulted in a loss on every car made.

The company admits it hasn’t sold all of the P1s despite limiting production to 375 cars. And it’s widely considered to have lost the PR war with Ferrari by too heavily trailing the P1 in advance.

That P1 is left hand drive only because the money was better spent on R&D rubs in the point the company is not awash with cash like it used to be.

Even the otherwise tremendously exciting news the company is developing an entry level car to debut in 2015 adds to the anxiety the McLaren group could easily overstretch itself.

Buyers have not yet been found for all 375 McLaren P1s.

Buyers have not yet been found for all 375 McLaren P1s.

Yesterday’s news that McLaren Automotive sold 1,400 cars last year therefore comes as a huge relief.

Overall losses were cut to around £12m in 2012 from £69m the year before. The company expects to be in profit next year.

Formula One writer Joe Saward was right to point out this morning that the team’s title sponsorship has only come up twice since 1974 and that some big companies will look on it as a huge opportunity.

In a confident statement, McLaren says it will announce its new title sponsor on December 2nd 2013.

Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso showed last year a poor car in the early races is no bar to a later challenge for the championship. At the absolute least, team principal Martin Whitmarsh will be highly motivated.

It would be miraculous if starting a sports car company in the middle of a depression didn’t put extraordinary stress on McLaren Group finance and management.

In a way, surely it’s all part of the fun for inveterate risk takers like overall boss Ron Dennis and business partner Mansour Ojjeh?

Meanwhile, it’s an encouraging sign that 2012 was a record year for arch competitors Porsche and Ferrari.

Dare we, should we, keep the faith?

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