No End in Sight for McLaren’s Misery

June 12, 2017 8:13 pm

At last after 3 years of bearing the brunt of a futile association, calmly, understanding and singing the “we are together in this” tune, McLaren finally has given a clear public warning to the Japanese firm that things cannot go on like this and that their union, how successful it may have been in the past, is not immune to a divorce if progress is not made on the engine front.

McLaren welcomed Honda with open arms just in the second year of the current V6 Hybrid Turbo era despite the fact that the engine in the back of their car was the field leading Mercedes engine. The reasoning, Ron Dennis echoed with great assertion, that in Formula One in order to win Championships, one must have a works engine. With this philosophy the McLaren-Mercedes tie that started way back in 1995 and resulted in 3 Driver’s title and 1 Constructors title was severed as the German team made an entry into the sport as a Constructor in 2010 and in 2013 had poached McLaren’s star driver.

McLaren’s misery was apparent from the moment the team tested the Honda engine for the first time in 2014 in the Abu Dhabi post-race test as the engine suffered from a lack of both power and reliability.

They were miserable already even during their competitive years with the Mercedes engine, always having a fast but unreliable car and the slump they entered after 2008, they haven’t been able to recover since. Their cause not helped by internal power struggle and politics as well. By 2012-13 McLaren had lost the way in terms of their Chassis building but pinned the blame on the customer Mercedes engine.

The decision to join hands with Honda was made in 2013 with the V6 era to begin from 2014. Mercedes did a brilliant job with their engine and McLaren’s exit was ill-timed and history seems to repeat itself.

The Honda engine was pathetic in 2015 but by 2016 Honda did make some progress and things began to look good for the team. But in 2017 they’re back to square one.

Although all the blame has been pinned on Honda for the union’s lack of results and McLaren being vocal that they’ve reached a fork in the road with Honda, McLaren will emerge to be the biggest loser if the two did split.

Honda already has a deal to supply engines to Sauber from next year onwards which means their Investment and Infrastructure is safe and with Kaltenborn recently suggesting that the Swiss team is open to more than just a customer relationship with Honda cheekily hinting that in the event McLaren and Honda split, they’ll be more than happy to receive that treatment. And if it indeed happens then it would actually be beneficial to both the teams as Sauber would enjoy a much better lime light and an infusion of finances while Honda can spend time perfecting their Formula away from the pressure.

Honda provides 100 million dollars to McLaren over and above the engine supply deal. McLaren on the face of it may have deep pockets given the fact that it has a successful Supercar producing subsidiary and an applied technology division that keeps the money flowing in, but the fact is that it does not have an unlimited supply of money and it’s pot is already drying up because of the fact that on track McLaren have not been the giants they were in the past. The lack of results on track since the past so many years have hurt it badly in terms of marketability as well. The team had been running without a title sponsor since 2014 and till date has not been successful in securing one. The biggest question needs to be asked then is that can McLaren survive without the Works support.

Bolting on a Mercedes engine does not guarantee immediate success for McLaren as Ferrari has also caught up with Mercedes and Renault is also not too far behind. The competition in the Mercedes powered world is also intense in the form of heavyweight Williams and the highly efficient Force India. With the top 3 so far ahead, McLaren would only find themselves fighting for the 4th and 5th spot on the constructors table. It may be a far more lucrative position compared to their dead last position today but for a team of McLaren’s stature that does little to add to its image and neither will the proceeds from the revenue distribution be able to plug in the hole created by severing the ties with Honda.

This in all probability is the reason that McLaren has so far stuck with Honda and is still doing so and will in most probability compel the Woking based team to stick to with Honda.

Honda may have been the wrong partner but its philosophy was indeed the right one and still is. You need a works engine to have a shot at winning the championships. The Customer engine is identical to the works team in specification but as Ron Dennis said while justifying the decision to sign with Honda and breaking up with Mercedes:

“A modern Grand Prix engine in this moment in time is not just about sheer power, it’s about how you harvest the energy, it’s about how you store the energy, and effectively if you don’t have control of that process – meaning access to source code – then you are not going to be able to stabilise your car in the entry to corners, etc., and you lose lots of lap time.”

And there you have it, with the hybrid V6 turbo engines introduced in 2014 came millions of lines of code of software needed to integrate all the new systems into a single “power plant”. Yes, there is still an internal combustion engine (ICE) that delivers power to the rear wheels. There are also energy-recovery systems that generate and store electrical power which is also used to drive the rear wheels in conjunction with the ICE. Moreover, the braking of a F1 car is now fully electronic, “brake-by-wire”, as the energy recovery systems also integrate with the braking system. In short, it takes all of these systems and many more to create the power plant which propels a F1 car, and software is the “glue” which bands these systems together.

So does this means that the future’s all bleak for McLaren unless they stick with Honda and hope the tides to turn in their favor? Are they on the same path as Williams, once a heavyweight but now relegated to the midfield and merely being the shadow of what they were before?

No one can say for certain but the indication so far points harrowingly towards the “Yes” direction.

But there’s a twist in the story, Eddie Jordan is tipping the Silver Arrows to leave the Sport in 2018. Assuming it to be the end of 2018, the puzzle pieces starts to fall in place. The reason Eddie cites is that staying any longer in the sport and not winning would do nothing but erode the Silver Arrows’s goodwill which is true. Despite conquering all in its wake for the past three years, the works Mercedes team still reported loss for 3 years. He added that the team would return back to its old business of supplying engines. If that be the case then it would make the perfect sense for McLaren and Mercedes to reinvigorate the great McLaren-Mercedes alliance back. What about the drivers? Hamilton’s contract expires at the end of 2018 while Bottas can take the second seat at McLaren and partner Vandoorne while the two Junior Mercedes drivers are yet to mature and there’s still 2 years that they need to spend in the midfield.

What of Fernando in all this? Unfortunately as much as it saddens me to write this, his chance has come and gone in Formula One. Seeing that he enjoyed his time at Indy and considering McLaren and Honda failed him, the two can arrange for the Spaniard a full blown outing in the Indycar Series not that he need their assistance anyway as the Spaniard has already made enough name for himself in America.

What way the future pans out to be no one can foretell, but one thing is certain and that is McLaren’s misery in all of this.

Muktesh Swamy

A Petrol Head, Traveller, Writer and Philosopher. Who do you wanna meet?

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