McLaren finally accepts it is a work in progress

WOKING, U.K -- A lot has changed at McLaren in the 12 months between the unveiling of last year's car and its predecessor, the MCL34.

The most obvious was who wasn't present at the launch, held at the team's Woking headquarters on Thursday -- Fernando Alonso was absent and in his place was the new line-up of Carlos Sainz and the rookie Lando Norris. Both stood in new-look blue overalls, although the car retained its predominantly orange paint scheme of the year before. Beyond Alonso, who this year turns his attention toward a second attempt to win the Indy 500, the most noticeable difference was the change in mood around the unveiling of the new car.

At this year's Valentine's Day launch there was no romantic notion about the 21 races ahead -- the lofty expectations of 12 months ago have given way to humility, a sense of McLaren embarking on a long journey back to the front of the grid.

Last year McLaren set itself up for a fall. Having ditched its Honda power unit, there was talk of challenging for podiums and wins with Renault as Red Bull had done and continued to do in 2018. The messaging was clear: the dismal failures of the previous three years had been the fault of Honda and Honda alone, the Japanese manufacturer having spoiled what McLaren frequently labelled the best chassis on the F1 grid.

Despite a strong start and the boastful "Now we can fight!" jibe from Alonso toward Honda after finishing fifth in Australia, results tailed off and soon the team was embroiled in a mess. The previous boasts around the brilliance of the team's car seemed increasingly misguided and foolish as the situation unraveled and the team struggled to make in-season developments work.

Team boss Eric Boullier quickly became collateral and was let go at midseason, while technical chiefs Tim Goss and Matt Morris also left the team. CEO Zak Brown responded by embarking on a huge restructure: Gil de Ferran has joined as sporting director and former Toro Rosso technical director James Key will start later in the year. Brown has also lured Andreas Seidl, the man who spearheaded Porsche's recent dominance of the World Endurance Championship, to the race operation.

Given the struggles and upheavals of the past 12 months, it was hardly surprising that the tone at Woking this time around felt so different and so measured.

When asked what his expectations were for the new campaign, Brown said: "I think all we can do is, which is our desire, is to take a good step forward.

"I think it's difficult not knowing the competition, and it's really close where we're racing, where that is in points and championship. I think last year was obviously very disappointing, we did not produce a fast race car or a race car that responded well to development... as the season went on others got in front of us. I think this year the desire is to put a good-quality race car on track from the word go and then have our development work over the course of the year.

"Hard to put a number on what that looks like, but I think everyone in this room, myself included, will know what that looks like when we see it."

Red Bull goes into 2019 quietly confident that McLaren's jilted former engine partner, Honda, has made good progress and started to cut into the gap at the front of the field. Brown has optimism in the engine he picked to replace it, with Renault also predicting a step forward from its own beleaguered power unit this year.

"We're obviously up to speed with the comments they've made and they've shared with us the gains they've made. So that's encouraging.

"Renault are saying things differently this year than they did last year. Last year they were very grounded in where they thought their engine was and the deficit to the front. So on the basis of that we've found them to be very honest in their communication of where they think they are, so it's encouraging they're as positive as they are.

"A second year with Renault, we've done a better job working closely with them to develop the car around the power unit, we know the power unit better. That was some of our issues last year, I think we made the decision to change [in 2017] a little bit late and we had reliability issues; some of those were car design and not knowing the power unit and how to package it as well as we could do.

"So it seems like they're in a better spot, a better position to capitalize on a year's experience."

Mentions of Alonso were sparse. The Spaniard will race for McLaren at Indianapolis in May and speculation continues he will drive the MCL34 at some point during the year. But his short-term focus very much remains away from F1. Brown wouldn't say whether Alonso will appear in the car during preseason testing, which begins in Barcelona on Monday.

For now, he need not worry about the two-time world champion and where he fits into McLaren's plans to return to the front of the F1 grid. Just making sure McLaren is on that path remains the most important goal of the foreseeable future.