McLaren F1 executive ditector Zak Brown (right) speaks to reporters at the opening of the Autosport show in Birmingham. Photo: James Gibson / Autosport

Birmingham, West Midlands - McLaren says its decision to ditch Honda and switch to Renault engines is paying dividends already as the former champion prepares for a new Formula One season after a three-year nightmare.

Executive director Zak Brown said on Thursday at the Autosport International show morale had soared and sponsors were once again showing an interest.

"The change has been a very big motivational boost to staff, drivers, existing partners, future partners," he said. "We’ve signed a few sponsors that we’re going to start announcing in January.

"Last year was unsellable, so it’s made a significant difference already. Now we need to deliver."

McLaren is the second most successful team in the sport after Ferrari, in terms of races won, but those glory days are becoming a distant memory. The Woking-based outfit has not won a race since 2012 and last took a Driver's championship with a young Lewis Hamilton in 2008. Hamilton is now 33 and a four-times champion, the past three of them with Mercedes.

McLaren ended 2017 ninth of 10 teams, its relationship with Honda pushed beyond breaking point, and former double world champion Fernando Alonso and Belgian Stoffel Vandoorne increasingly frustrated. It should not be hard to improve on that with an engine that won three races in the back of a Red Bull.

Good chassis

"We’re very eager to get to Australia," said Brown, referring to the 25 March season-opener. "We’ve obviously had a significant power deficit that we think Renault will fix for us and that should get us back towards the front of the field. What slot I don’t know, but it will be towards the front.

"We had a really good chassis last year," he added. "We know the majority of what we put into the chassis during the year worked. The improvement that you saw over the year, the most significant part of that was our chassis development."

Brown hopes McLaren might finally end its win drought, and is aiming for that to be a possibility, but he's under no illusions about the task ahead. The top three teams - champion Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull - took all but one podium in 2017.

"I think we can be on the podium," he said, "but it’s tough."

Losing sponsors 

Honda has now moved on to partner Toro Rosso, another new chapter starting this season, and Brown said there was no point mulling over what could or should have been. That said, he admitted he would have been more than nervous if they had stayed together.

"Year one was understandable, year two improved, year three was just too big a setback," he said of a partnership that saw several major long-term sponsors leave for rivals Mercedes and Red Bull.

"If you look at McLaren’s history, we’ve kept sponsors longer than anyone. But in the last three years Hugo Boss left to another team, Tag Heuer to another team, ExxonMobil to another team. That was all pretty much performance related."

Brown, a marketing expert who joined McLaren after the departure from the helm of long-standing boss Ron Dennis, said two of the team's three fresh sponsors were new to the sport.

Competing against Formula E 

Securing significant new sponsorship has been a struggle for most teams in recent seasons, with some would-be backers gravitating to all-electric Formula E instead.

"Formula E is doing a great job," said Brown, playing down any emerging rivalry between the series. "I’m not seeing many new sponsor announcements in Formula One but hopefully we can win that race as well,"

"Formula E is another form of motorsport, different racing fans," he said. "We’re doing the batteries for the cars in season five so I’m a fan of Formula E.

"I think Formula E is becoming very successful but I don’t think that is to the detriment of Formula One."