Fourth or bust – McLaren's 2018 tightrope

We have heard the historical parallels. Once great champion British teams that go into long lingering and (probably) irrecoverable decline. BRM, Lotus, Tyrrell, Williams. McLaren, some like to say, is well on the way to joining them. Pure numbers don’t look good other than in their symmetry – five years since a win; close to 10 since a championship; 20 since a constructors’ title.

Despite results the team just about clings to its reputation for glory. It also maintains gleaming resources and a driver line up better than most. But it is clear it needs to arrest and reverse its slide pronto if it is not to indeed join the inauspicious list outlined. In F1 nothing succeeds like failure – lack of results loses you sponsors and investment; puts off drivers and technical staff from joining you. Not for nothing Ben Anderson spoke of the task before the Woking squad as “diffusing a ticking timebomb”.

Right now when we’ve not been talking grid girls and start times much of the chat has been about McLaren, and not just because of explosive documentaries. Between two F1 seasons wherein not a great deal else is likely to change competitiveness-wise McLaren is expected to be high climber.

It’s ditched its dreadful Honda power units, replacing them with Renaults, and is expected to rise from its ninth of ten constructors’ slots. The only matter is how high it can go.

McLaren's last win came in 2012 at the Brazilian GP

Yet the last point is crucial. As if it’s lost its woeful engines it’s also lost its most convenient lightening conductor. If it doesn’t get it right now the slide will likely be confirmed as irrecoverable in many minds. Crucial times, as outlined.

“If we’re 0.9 seconds off Red Bull [another Renault customer], that won't look good, I agree,” admitted the team’s executive director Zak Brown recently.

Fernando Alonso’s claim late last season that the McLaren has the best chassis in F1 may have been fanciful. The word on the street is that McLaren ran the car rather draggy, perhaps flattering it (and perhaps working on the premise that Honda was going to get hammered either way).

But the same word on the street also had the McLaren as at least the fourth best out there, which isn’t a bad point to start from if it now has a power unit that gets it into the game.

Then there’s the power unit it’s replacing the Honda with. The Renault is arguably the hybrid era’s rich man’s Honda. OK, that’s excessive – but parallels exist. Power well off the pace-setters, plenty of false dawns and ‘jam tomorrow’ proclamations. At points last year the French unit’s reliability seemed barely superior to the Japanese as well.

All the talk last year too was of McLaren simply reaching the end of its tether and being desperate to ditch Honda whatever else happened. “It’s three years now,” explained ex McLaren technical chief Pat Fry around the engine crunch point. “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.”

If we’re 0.9 seconds off Red Bull, that won't look good, I agree - Zak Brown

And indeed with Honda duly ditched all at McLaren, for now, are confident. They’re also maintaining that its Renault selection was not simply one of anything-but-the-Japanese-product.

“I know there is a big debate about what is the first, second and third best engine. I think in reality they are all pretty close,” Brown insisted.

The team’s Racing Director Eric Boullier insists there are forthcoming gains too. "We have information from Renault that proves to us that their engine is competitive,” he said. “Maybe it is a bit behind the Mercedes and the Ferrari but it has potential.

“We have had meetings that show they are working on a reliability and performance package that will be more competitive in 2018.”

We can point out too that Red Bull won races and occasionally set the pace with the Renault unit last year, and even at tracks like Monza wasn’t far off. Night and day from the Honda.

Renault Formula 1 advisor Alain Prost thinks the relationship’s benefits will be reciprocal to the power unit supplier as well.

“It will make pressure,” he said. “Because we will have one more competitor in our field.

“But we know that and we hope that it's going to be positive pressure, and it's a fact that we have to beat everybody.”

Unlike Merc and Ferrari too, Renault’s record of giving its customers the same as its works team is a good one (Toro Rosso kerfuffle late last year notwithstanding), and McLaren has the same fuel partner as the works team too – BP. Varying on this with Mercedes when McLaren was last a customer in 2014 was really thought to impede the Woking cars.

We have information from Renault that proves to us that their engine is competitive - Eric Boullier

Additionally for the first time since it threw its lot in with Honda for 2015 McLaren has benchmarks. And it includes a formidable one in Red Bull, arguably the sport’s chassis standard bearer and for years.

The team’s chief technical officer (aerodynamics) Peter Prodromou thinks this too will be a benefit. “It has been difficult for us last three years not having someone to measure yourself up against,” he said.

“It is a very positive thing that we have two first-class teams to measure ourselves against and that is a very strong motivating factor for everyone in the workforce.”

McLaren joins Red Bull as a Renault customer

Brown agrees. “The beautiful thing about motor racing is hundreds of millions of people get to see how you do. That’s part of the adrenalin.

“We are looking forward to that. This team has won the second most amount of championships and they welcome and are excited about the pressure of having the spotlight on us.”

As has been pointed out McLaren and Red Bull have historical needle as well, with plenty of spats over staff, rules, sponsors and technical partners; one thinks more generally of the stand-off between the two squads after Sebastian Vettel wiped out Jenson Button at Spa in 2010. It can only add to the focus.

Also given Red Bull’s testy relationship with Renault over recent years there is clear potential for McLaren to become Regie’s favoured customer.

Then again it’s not simply a case of McLaren bolting a better engine on. Critics note it was hardly stunning when it had the Mercedes unit in 2014 – it wasn’t even the best Mercedes customer let alone getting near the works outfit. And not all of the problems with the McLaren Honda in the last three years have been Honda ones. Far from it.

We’re fortunate we have a very committed ownership base. We can make decisions purely on performance, knowing we’ve got the financial resources. We’ve got the racing budget we requested - Zak Brown

But things have changed at the team. Boullier for one thing slimming down the squad that had been more geared to the previous era of splurging money and innumerable test days at problems. Plenty talk of the positive environment, despite the lack of results. Ron Dennis’s unique style of management is now a thing of the past, and in 2017 his decoupling from the team was made total.

“We’ve accomplished a lot in 2017 that the viewers can’t see on television,” Brown has noted.

While to take us back to where we came in, there is a crucial difference between today’s McLaren and the likes of Tyrrell and Williams – the perennial of money. Ken Tyrrell’s tight budgets towards the end were stuff of legend; Williams’ driver line-ups of recent times betray being hard up for cash. Granted the McLaren hasn’t had a title sponsor on it for a while and has just lost its works engine partner and its cash, but it is 50% owned by the Bahrain royal family’s Mumtalakat investment company, giving a source of revenue. And Brown knows it, albeit expressing the point a little cryptically.

“I think we’re fortunate we have a very committed ownership base,” he said. “We can make decisions purely on performance, knowing we’ve got the financial resources. Our shareholders are very open on a case-by-case [basis]. We’ve got the racing budget we requested.”

Yet also money is the reason McLaren’s unlikely to be setting the pace in 2018 either. The large skew in favour of ‘the big three’ Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull remains, and Brown admits that winning titles prior to 2021 when terms are up for review is a tall order.

“I wouldn’t want to say we’re not going to try to win world championships before 2021,” he added, “but certainly it’s an unlevel playing field right now, which makes it a tall task. The budget deficit is quite huge between us and the top three teams. You can spend more efficiently…but the discrepancy is too big.

“When we get on equal footing with the other teams I like our chances of winning world championships as much as anyone.”

For McLaren this year it therefore seems fourth or bust. Breaking the top three would be a gargantuan achievement.  Fourth in the constructors’ table is entirely achievable – McLaren was roughly with the Force India and Williams on pace late last year with a much worse power unit.

But equally it not getting fourth doesn’t bear thinking about. As per the considerations at the outset it could be terminal.

It’s reflected too in Brown’s aims for the year. “Being competitive,” he said, “that is racing at the front, qualifying at the front, getting on the podium.

“I’d be surprised if we were world champions.”

In other words come Melbourne the team’s not going to look like Mercedes. But at the very least, for the first time in a while, it should have gone some way to look a little more like McLaren.