By Alan Baldwin
WOKING, England (Reuters) - McLaren will start the Formula One season without a title sponsor but still expect to have one this year, group chief executive Ron Dennis said on Thursday.
"Our cars will not feature a title sponsor at the first event," he told reporters at the McLaren factory ahead of the season-opener in Australia next week.
"But they will definitely feature a title sponsor some time at the next few races."
McLaren were sponsored by mobile telecoms giant Vodafone until the end of last year. They had planned to reveal a new title partner in December but the appointed day came and went without any announcement.
The team had their first season without a podium since 1980 last year, a failure that led to a management restricting with former principal and minority shareholder Dennis reasserting himself.
Dennis, 66, said the formal title of team principal had been scrapped and would not discuss the fate of former incumbent Martin Whitmarsh, although he said they had been in touch and remained friends.
The group chief executive painted a bright financial future for the team, the second most successful in F1 history after Ferrari in terms of race wins and total titles, and compared McLaren to currently ailing Manchester United.
Premier League champions United have been off form since the retirement of Alex Ferguson at the end of last season.
"Inevitably when you have a run of poor results, people try and push the rate card down," he said of the sponsorship negotiations," said Dennis.
"I won't accept that. I know what this company is and what it's grand prix team can achieve. And that requires the correct recognition when it comes to the commercial relationship with a principal sponsor.
"We are negotiating with several partners at the moment and I think it will happen sooner rather than later."
Dennis said money was not an issue, with the overall McLaren Group - which includes the sportscar company and applied technology division - having turnover in excess of 900 million pounds ($1.51 billion) and aiming to "sail past a billion and achieve 2.0 billion within five years."
Applied technology, said Dennis, was showing 'tremendous growth' and he would be bitterly disappointed if growth was not "north of 200 million pounds within two or three years" from a current 36 million.
The F1 restructuring, he added, would allow the team to focus on being competitive, with former Lotus principal Eric Boullier joining as Racing Director to deliver results on the track without having to worry about other distractions.
Boullier will report to a McLaren Racing chief executive, who has yet to be appointed, with Dennis in overall control without being active at race weekends.
Dennis, who has been in Formula One since he started as a Cooper mechanic in 1966, explained that he would be present at the season's early races as an observer and would not wear the team uniform.
"The Formula One team has no responsibilities for income," he said. "So the new model for our Formula One team is that it's completely populated by people who have no other objective but winning in Formula One.
"Effectively the mindset of the Formula One team is they provide to the marketing company a car devoid of branding. They have no responsibility for income...it's a much more focused model," he added.
McLaren are switching to Honda engines next year after racing this season with Mercedes power but Dennis said the team was not looking for a 'stopgap' solution to the title sponsor vacancy.
"We've turned away stopgaps," he said. ($1 = 0.5977 British pounds)
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Justin Palmer)