Is McLaren making a mistake by ditching Honda?
McLaren Honda. Whenever you first saw it written again upon its recoupling in late 2014 it quickened the heartbeat of anyone who has cared about a racing car.
But it wasn’t mere romanticism. Honda unlike its rival manufacturers was concentrating on one team. It was coming in a year after them in a new engine formula and would learn their lessons in advance. Just like in the last turbo era it’d lead the second generation. And dominate.
Bang goes the theory I guess. What has happened in the following three seasons is well-trodden. The unit has remained off the pace and unreliable. False dawns and over promising – in public and private – were frequent. Progress over time an oscillation rather than an upward trajectory.
The biggest problem perhaps was one of culture. Just as John Surtees found in the 1960s and Ross Brawn in the noughties, urgency it seems simply cannot be injected into the Japanese concern.
Honda unlike its rival manufacturers was concentrating on one team. It was coming in a year after them in a new engine formula and would learn their lessons in advance. Just like in the last turbo era it’d lead the second generation. And dominate. Bang goes the theory
We had early warning. Even before a McLaren Honda turned a wheel murmurs persisted of Honda not giving it nearly as much resource or personnel as required. Of even mere months before its race debut half of its high-tech test beds not running; of engineering staff being rotated like it was a training exercise.
Now the end is nigh. McLaren has for a time been seeking divorce, however messy, and with reports of Carlos Sainz signing for Renault next year that’s reckoned to be the first domino to fall which will result in McLaren getting Renault units and Toro Rosso getting the Honda instead.
We can understand why the Woking team reached this conclusion. As Mark Hughes explained, “it has simply lost the faith.”
“It’s three years now,” added ex McLaren technical chief Pat Fry last week. “All the engineers will be saying dump it and run, the other thing’s got more H recovery, more horsepower... They’ll know all that from simulation – engineers, it’s what we do.”
You can add that it’s thought the team’s star driver Fernando Alonso has made ditching Honda a red line for him hanging around for 2018.
But even with all this, is getting rid of the Honda unit actually such a no brainer? Might McLaren’s abandonment prove regrettable?
It’s three years now. All the engineers will be saying dump it and run, the other thing’s got more H recovery, more horsepower... - Pat Fry
Take firstly the immediate matter of Honda’s replacement-to-be, framed as all other engine options fell through.
“How is that so much better going to a Renault engine?,” asked Ted Kravitz at Monza.
“Because it’s probably not all that much more powerful and it’s a little bit more reliable but not that much.
“Going to Mercedes I can understand divorcing from Honda. Going to Renault? Is it worth the hassle?”
There’s also a broader consideration, that takes us to precisely why McLaren got together with Honda in the first place.
Here is its then chief Ron Dennis back in late 2014, just when the team-manufacturer relationship was about to commence.
“The one thing that jumps at you, if you look at all the qualifications this year, is the time difference between the Mercedes-Benz works team and other teams [that it provides engines to],” observed Dennis.
“By and large it is always in excess of one second.
The one thing that jumps at you is the time difference between the Mercedes-Benz works team and other teams [that it provides engines to] - Ron Dennis
“My opinion, and it is an opinion held by many people within our organisation, is that you have no chance of winning the world championship if you are not receiving the best engines from whoever is manufacturing your engines.
“And a modern grand prix engine at this moment in time is not about sheer power, it is about how you harvest the energy, it is about how you store the energy.
“Effectively, if you don't have the 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.
“Even though you have the same brand of engine that does not mean you have the ability to optimise the engine.”
Yet McLaren now goes full circle, back to being a customer. And is there any reason to think that Dennis’s reasoning does not hold just as much now?
You can’t have your cake and eat it. I’ve heard people say, ‘When you put such-and-such engine in a McLaren it’d win all the races’, but they’ve built that car with a lot of financial support from Honda - Paddy Lowe
Speculation of what the highly-rated McLaren chassis would do with another power unit has been common. Alonso was one of the latest to extrapolate, saying after Spa’s qualifying that “we would easily be in first and second positions” with a rival unit.
But the Spaniard and others may be well-advised to heed Paddy Lowe’s words from earlier this year.
“You can’t have your cake and eat it,” Lowe insisted. “I’ve heard people say, ‘When you put such-and-such engine in a McLaren it’d win all the races’, but they’ve built that car with a lot of financial support from Honda. You can’t have both.
“If you look at most of those examples where teams are more successful under a works arrangement, it’s because the team has been underpinned by strong financial support from the manufacturer.
“Particularly nowadays, where the engines by regulation are identical across works and customer teams, then it’s actually the financial support and sometimes the technical support from the manufacturer's own engineering teams that can be one of the bigger advantages in that sort of relationship.
We hear a lot about Honda from McLaren, but can you imagine what those at Honda have made of McLaren? - Gary Anderson
“That example is clear in the case of McLaren, where one of the advantages they have is the financial support from Honda.”
In any case as Gary Anderson noted not all of McLaren problems in their time together have been Honda ones. “We hear a lot about Honda from McLaren, but can you imagine what those at Honda have made of McLaren?,” asked Anderson.
“This was a team that dominated F1 during their previous relationship, but it will have been difficult to have faith in Woking. Ending the relationship with Honda doesn’t make all of that go away.”
In this partnership’s first year in particular some of the errors from the McLaren team would have embarrassed an amateur outfit. We know about McLaren’s ongoing struggle to attract sponsorship cash as well.
A new engine also means McLaren will have nowhere to hide. “Chassis-wise, it would be compared directly to Red Bull, and the works Renault team,” Anderson went on. “That means no excuses – it’s put up or shut up.”
Yet this may not even be the biggest risk to the team. That instead is the unthinkable – but not impossible – one. What happens if Honda post-divorce suddenly gets it right?
Honda is receiving help from a group of engineers from outside and there’s realistic hope that it will eventually produce a competitive motor - Mark Hughes
That after all is why Toro Rosso is picking the spare units up, as its parent team Red Bull (which, irony of ironies, has experienced chronic frustration with Renault’s products) wants to be in line to benefit if the very scenario comes to pass.
“Honda,” Hughes noted, “is receiving help from a group of engineers from outside (ostensibly Ilmor, but including engineers who have worked on the standard-setting Mercedes motor) and there’s realistic hope that it will eventually produce a competitive motor.”
There’s a previous for this too. Honda started its 1980s/1990s F1 spell as a joke, but then one day it all clicked and it swept the board for years afterwards (though that day, admittedly, came rather sooner in the spell than this one would). Even in the noughties stint mentioned, largely dismissed as a disaster, Brawn has stated that had Honda not pulled out then its engine for 2009 was a very good one.
Of course given everything it may not feel much of a risk this time. Plus the Renault in the back of the Red Bull didn’t appear to be giving much away at ultra-fast Monza. A Peter Prodromou-Renault link up has been devastating in the past.
Yet if Honda does suddenly get it right in 2018 or later, for McLaren the humiliation will be greater even than anything it’s experienced in its latest time together.