McLaren's Title Sponsor Gamble Could Backfire in 2014

Matthew Walthert@@MatthewWalthertFeatured ColumnistMarch 13, 2014

Lacking a title sponsor, McLaren opted to use the car's designation, MP4-29, on its livery in pre-season testing.
Lacking a title sponsor, McLaren opted to use the car's designation, MP4-29, on its livery in pre-season testing.Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

McLaren CEO Ron Dennis is gambling on his team. No, not in the same way Pete Rose did to earn himself a lifetime ban from Major League Baseball.

The McLaren boss told reporters at the team factory last week that, "Our cars will not feature a title sponsor at the first event, but it will definitely feature a title sponsor at some time in the next few races," per ESPN F1.

Dennis continued, saying he believes that after the team performed poorly in 2013:

people try to push the rate card down and I won't accept that. I know what this company is and I know what this grand prix team can achieve, and that requires the correct recognition when it comes to the commercial relationship with the principal sponsor.

Why is this a gamble? Well, 2013 was the first time since 1980 that the team ended a season without one podium finish. If McLaren cannot demonstrate immediate improvement on the track, Dennis will not get the deal he wants.

Ron Dennis
Ron DennisMark Thompson/Getty Images

He obviously has a number in mind for what the title sponsorship is worth—for reference, the Daily Mail estimated the team's old Vodafone deal at "over £40 million annually"—but he has to convince someone else of that value, as well.

"We are negotiating with several companies at the moment," Dennis said, according to ESPN F1, "and I am optimistic it will happen sooner rather than later." The sticking point is the price tag. And if those companies are not willing to pay up now, ongoing poor race results will not change their minds.

If, however, the new MP4-29 is competitive in Australia and Malaysia, the team's 2013 struggles can be written off as a one-year hiccup.

Following a solid pre-season performance, with his car powered by Mercedes engines, Dennis has every reason to be confident. Red Bull team principal Christian Horner recently said that, "Mercedes-powered teams are absolutely the favourites," per Sky Sports.

Still, there are question marks for McLaren. First, it is one of four teams using the Mercedes engine. The Mercedes factory team, Force India and Williams were also impressive at the pre-season tests. Just having the engine is not necessarily enough.

Jenson Button and Kevin Magnussen
Jenson Button and Kevin MagnussenEugene Hoshiko/Associated Press

Second, among those teams, McLaren is the only one with a rookie driver. True, Jenson Button is the last man other than Sebastian Vettel to win the Drivers' Championship, but he is paired with the unproven Kevin Magnussen, fresh from Formula Renault 3.5.

Mercedes has former champion Lewis Hamilton and three-time grand prix winner Nico Rosberg. Force India features up-and-comers Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez, who drove for McLaren last year. Felipe Massa has taken his 11 career victories to Williams where he will be partnered with Valtteri Bottas, who impressed with his pace in a poor car last season.

Obviously, not all of these drivers can end up on the podium—not to mention the Ferrari and Red Bull challengers—and that must be McLaren's target, proving last season really was an anomaly.

There is one other factor to consider. Dennis said, per ESPN F1, that, "money isn't an issue. The racing team doesn't have to worry about income and has the biggest budget that it's had in the history of the company."

McLaren MP4-29 launch
McLaren MP4-29 launchUncredited/Associated Press

But then why is he so focused on getting a specific price for the McLaren title sponsorship? Dennis is proud of McLaren, and with good reason. He built the team into an F1 powerhouse and he does not want to undervalue it.

Still, £40 million (assuming a new sponsor pays similar money to Vodafone) represents a significant portion of McLaren's F1 budget, which Autosport's Dieter Rencken estimated (paywall protected) at £160 million for 2013.

McLaren may not need the money, but Dennis certainly wants the team to be successful again to secure his legacy. If his gamble backfires, his second turn at the McLaren helm will be off to an inauspicious start.

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