Analysis: The impact of the McLaren-Mercedes recoupling

McLaren and Mercedes in action

There will be a seismic change in partnerships come 2021 that will impact the future of McLaren, Mercedes and Renault. Motorsport Week takes a look at why the deal has happened, and what it means for all concerned.

When McLaren’s MCL36 emerges from the garage during testing in early 2021 it will do so with a Mercedes power unit, six-and-a-half years after the last lap was turned by the partnership.

Between 1995 and 2014 the McLaren-Mercedes collaboration was so intertwined that the phrase rolled off the tongue, the highlights of its on-track results being World Championships in 1998, 1999 and 2008, albeit with consistent and sustained title success remaining frustratingly elusive.

When Mercedes ramped up its involvement at the end of 2009 it did so not with McLaren but by instead acquiring the title-winning fairy-tale Brawn GP outfit. But it knew it had to enact a long-term plan in order to achieve its ultimate goals, with one eye on the hybrid era, while for McLaren it began to see the writing on the wall.

The fortunes of the respective teams were such that Mercedes’ rise coincided with McLaren’s fall – not that at that stage it realised it was on a decline – with the Silver Arrows’ first win and McLaren’s most recent success coming in 2012.

McLaren-Mercedes was a front-runner for 20 years, but consistent title success remained elusive

The first race of the hybrid era featured Mercedes and McLaren on the podium, with Nico Rosberg victorious, and Kevin Magnussen and Jenson Button promoted to second and third. It was the sign of things to come for one team and a false dawn for the other.

Since then Mercedes has won 82 grands prix and is on the brink of a sixth straight title, while a McLaren driver has not even graced the podium.

But by the time the hybrid era had begun the divergence was well underway; McLaren had already penned a deal with Honda for 2015 in mid-2013, believing that it was not possible for a customer team to challenge a works manufacturer team for overall honours. The respective 2014 displays validated that mindset among McLaren’s senior hierarchy.

The Honda partnership proved to be disastrous as both sides of the relationship made mistakes and mis-steps that prompted a divorce in 2017. With Ferrari a no-go, and Mercedes reluctant to supply, it left McLaren entering a marriage of convenience with Renault. It was confident heading into 2018 but the mood was crushed when the performances of the MCL33 prompted a deep-rooted assessment of its organisation, which involved several high-profile firings and hirings. One key recruit was ex-Porsche head Andreas Seidl, who officially joined in May. The impressive Seidl quickly set about making changes, giving the green-light to the construction of a much-needed wind tunnel, while also turning his attention to McLaren’s power unit deal. A team that was ninth in 2017 and sixth (in reality seventh) last year is now fourth, and eager to make the next step. Through July and August Seidl locked on to securing a Mercedes deal.

Seidl became McLaren's new F1 team boss in May

“Selecting the power unit supplier is an important milestone,” said Seidl. “For me, Mercedes being clearly the benchmark in this hybrid era in terms of power unit was one of the main reasons why we wanted to make this decision to go for Mercedes for ‘21 onwards.

“At the same time Mercedes as a team together with this power unit is clearly the benchmark in Formula 1, and for me the best thing is to have the same power in our car as the best team in the paddock at the moment as there’s nowhere to hide for us.

“History has shown how Mercedes is working with its customers in terms of power unit supply, so I have absolutely no worries there that we won’t get the same treatment as the works team.”

It is important to note that this is a refreshed and restructured McLaren organisation compared to the one that severed the Mercedes tie first time around in mid-2013. Out have gone Ron Dennis and Martin Whitmarsh, replaced by Zak Brown and Seidl, the latter approaching Formula 1 and McLaren with a fresh perspective and with the simplified approach of getting back to basics. The McLaren of 2013 believed it was in a position to chase world titles with a manufacturer. The McLaren of 2019 recognises it is in the first stages of a long-term recovery. McLaren has had a strong campaign, but it is all relative. It is still far from the podium, and the gap between the big three and the rest was indicated firmly in Russia. Even accounting for an early Safety Car period, and Carlos Sainz Jr.’s excellent start, by lap 20 he was already 40 seconds adrift of the leaders. Of course, there is an irony in McLaren returning to an ex-supplier in a bid to recapture past glories, but this time around it knows it is not going to be a case of bolting in a Mercedes power unit and returning to the top step of the podium.

McLaren still has substantial progress to make to catch the leaders

“I think we need to be realistic,” asserted the pragmatic Seidl. “For us let’s say the next target is to make the next step next year. Hopefully we can jump somewhere in terms of performance and lap times between where we are now and the top teams. That would be a great step forward for next year. For ‘21 onwards the new regulations are kicking in, but we need to be realistic. The three top teams are not just there because of having more money, they simply do a better job also, and they will keep doing a better job, so for us it’s important make sure we take the next steps as a team to do simply a better job. If we get everything right on our side, and keep working hard, we hopefully can challenge them at some point.”

McLaren is on the road to recovery and it recognises that having the benchmark (or, at least, better than Renault’s) power unit should facilitate further improvements going forward. It was never going to chase Ferrari, while producing its own power unit was a no-go from a financial perspective, and there was zero interest from an OEM not currently participating in the championship.

But it takes two to tango. When McLaren came calling in early 2017 amid its desperation to sever ties from Honda with immediate effect Mercedes said no, citing its refusal to be a player in a divorce between parties that were still married. Again, for 2018, McLaren-Mercedes did not happen. But times have changed. Mercedes, once completely supreme in the power stakes, has now been challenged – and indeed overhauled – by Ferrari. The respective chassis designs influence the picture but a Mercedes power unit is no longer the golden ticket to success it once was. Convergence is well and truly alive and kicking, and will surely continue unabated given the stable engine regulations for the next few years. But even so, why now, and not then?

Ferrari has emerged from the shadows to challenge Mercedes on pure pace

“I think the situation has changed a little bit,” said Mercedes chief Toto Wolff. “We were very strict straight from the beginning that we said we want to give 100 per cent concertation on our works team, we stepped a little bit away from that by supplying Manor [in 2016] so we had three customers back in the day and we actually learned, and realised that it was an advantage of having more PUs out there. I think that a new era is going to start in 2021 with compressed grids, with more competition. We believe that from a power unit side, there is more learning for us in this exercise with having more competitive customers, adding to the two that we have [Racing Point and Williams], and we rate McLaren strongly. The steps that Zak and Andreas have initiated already look very promising. So the advantages outweigh the potential deficits of fighting a hard competitor like McLaren in the future.”

It will undoubtedly add more strain to the crew at Brixworth, having to produce eight power units at a time rather than six, and there will likely be some setbacks. For example, all six Mercedes-powered drivers had new Spec 3 power units in Belgium this year but such was the push to get the fresh specifications ready that Sergio Perez and Robert Kubica had to revert to the older versions when their respective new components failed. But Wolff is adamant the positives outweigh the potential negatives.

“We need to look at numbers, also in the same effect I don’t believe there is a big downside,” he said. “We’ve got to do a good enough job anyway. Engine convergence is happening. We can see that some are a little bit better, some a little bit worse but these things will eventually converge over the next two or three years.”

Mercedes is set for a sixth straight title this season

The renewal of the McLaren-Mercedes partnership also raised suggestions that it could eventually develop into a full works team, with the future of the Silver Arrows in Formula 1 regularly questioned. But Wolff stressed that “this is a customer power unit relationship, and not the start of a works deal and us not being there anymore. As it stands, we are keen in understanding how Formula 1 goes forward, how it develops, and continuing preferably as a works team.” Politically, it ostensibly strengthens Mercedes’ hand but Wolff dismissed such notions, outlining that “every team needs to look out for their own advantage. Our customers will listen to what our opinion is, but I haven’t seen any power unit customer that was dealing on eye level with the supplier to having their hand tweaked when it comes to chassis regulations. I can clearly say I’m not expecting McLaren, nor do I expect Racing Point or Williams, to ever decide against what their priorities are.” And the elephant in the room – Spygate – is now firmly a closed chapter. “That is a dark time for McLaren and Mercedes back in the day,” said Wolff. “It cost us both quite some money to remedy the actions of individuals. In this respect, there is no feelings at all. We have moved on. It’s 12 years later, and hasn’t played any role for the decision.”

And what of the third wheel – Renault?

Since the start of the hybrid era it has flattered to deceive, talking the talk but not walking the walk. Red Bull had enough and jumped into bed with Honda. Renault insisted it would get there. This year it has undoubtedly made progress with its power unit – for the first time it has a variance of a party mode – though the sub-standard R.S.19 chassis at high-downforce venues, and inconsistent development, has stymied its chances. It is the first major hiccup it has had since its full-scale return as a works team in 2016, with its initial ambition of podiums by 2018 and a title fight for 2021 pushed back, accepting it underestimated the timeframe and investment required.

The McLaren-Renault alliance has been beneficial for both parties

Renault and McLaren have often been scrapping over the same piece of tarmac this year as both continue on their respective programmes. McLaren is set to finish P4, Renault P5. Amid the impending 2021 regulations, and probable use of more standardised parts, Renault’s idea was for a greater alignment with McLaren.

“Our proposal was very much more about a partnership in which we would share lots of parts, engine integration, chassis installation, but not just that,” said Renault boss Cyril Abiteboul. “If you look at where we are standing, we are very close with McLaren with almost nothing between us, but there is a wall between us and the top teams – 1.8s or something like that between us and pole. For me, the objective of that relationship could have been to work on reducing that gap together, so creating more synergies about equipment, installation and facilities. Also looking at the way Formula 1 is going to evolve, with standard parts, open-source parts, prescriptive design parts, there are a number of opportunities to join forces and try together, as we compete on track, try together to reduce the gap to the top. That was our approach. That’s why I’m talking about a strategic partnership, which doesn’t mean them becoming a junior team or B team of Renault, obviously that was not going to happen so we didn’t even consider or try that, but our approach was not really of interest for McLaren.” McLaren is keen to remain as independent as possible, which includes producing its own gearbox, rather than taking an entire customer powertrain. It was not interested in developing such a sharing collaboration. “I think we would have been stronger together on the basis of our approach to the partnership,” added Abiteboul. “So obviously without that we are weaker than what we could have been and it’s a lost opportunity, but it’s not like it’s something that is putting us massively in a different position to the position we are in today.”

Can Renault ever realise its long-term goal?

McLaren and Renault still have 2020 to get through and both parties emitted the usual statements about working together efficiently, for it will still benefit the respective teams. But come 2021 Renault will be fighting alone against Mercedes’ four teams, Ferrari’s three, and Honda’s two (assuming the current deals are extended as expected, and that Honda stays). Again, Renault sees positives and negatives.

“Very clearly we are not any longer in Formula 1 just as an engine supplier activity,” said Abiteboul. “Supplying or not supplying McLaren is not going to turn things upside down. We will remain in Formula 1 providing it continues to make sense for Renault as a business, from a marketing strategy perspective and also based on the evolution of the sport. If we are here today we have no particular reason not to be here tomorrow, provided we stick to the principles that have been set out.”

Abiteboul added that Renault’s desire to “listen to everyone” has led to the team sometimes “diluting the focus from the works team” and that being able to exclusively focus on its own squad may reap dividends longer term. But Renault, as with Mercedes, has yet to sign up for 2021 as a works entity, and is still feeling the fallout from the Carlos Ghosn affair. It was Ghosn, remember, who pushed hard for Renault’s full-scale F1 return. Board members do not view motorsport with the same romanticism as fans, particularly if the end result has not been met. If Renault wants title success it needs to make a substantial investment, even accounting for the impending budget cap.

For McLaren, Mercedes and Renault they have all made decisions that will shape their prospects as Formula 1 heads into the 2020s. All three have the same long-term ambitions but, through the laws of averages, only one will be able to realise that goal…