Why 2017 could break McLaren-Honda

Michael Lamonato Columnist

By Michael Lamonato, Michael Lamonato is a Roar Expert

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    Is a Red Bull alliance with Honda on the cards? (AFP / Jorge Guerrero)

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    The new-look Formula One finally roared into life last week at Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya for 2017’s first preseason test.

    New regulations this year are designed to shake up the order by giving chassis and engine designers more freedom, and at first glance the changes appear to have worked.

    Red Bull Racing is seizing the chance to out-manoeuvre triple-champion Mercedes, and Ferrari, contrary to expectations, appears to have built a Silver Arrow-standard car – and that’s without considering the competitive midfield.

    So it’s all change for F1 in 2017 – but the more things change, the more things stay the same for McLaren-Honda.

    Together with the new technical regulations, McLaren is operating under a new management structure with a new driver, a redesigned Honda power unit and even a fresh coat of paint.

    The fresh 2017 combination is supposed to cast aside the partnership’s two formative seasons as little more than a steep learning curve – but, to use Fernando Alonso’s words, the first preseason test has been nothing but “disappointing”.

    Honda’s 2017 power unit is the most eye-catching of the team’s problems, with an oil tank issue and a potentially integral internal combustion unit problem severely restricting track time.

    At the end of the four days, McLaren and Honda completed just 208 laps, more than only Sauber. By comparison, the Mercedes team completed 558. Meanwhile, Ferrari power units completed an impressive 1375 tours across three cars.

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    But it isn’t all about lap count, and in this respect McLaren’s chassis is far from blameless – indeed seasoned F1 technical head Gary Anderson ranked the McLaren car among the worst performers in Barcelona.

    Red Bull Racing, which itself set a paltry 294 laps after power unit gremlins, looks impressive regardless, particularly given the car used last week was a baseline chassis with minimum aerodynamic trickery. The four-time championship-winning team is expected to be a contender.

    Dan Ricciardo drives F1 car

    Though testing remains just that, the first four-day session comprised all the ingredients of the McLaren-Honda project’s downfall, and the key to the collapse is in the nexus of the union, as described by Ron Dennis in 2014.

    “The one thing that jumps at you … this year is the time difference between the Mercedes-Benz works team and other teams,” Dennis said.

    “Even though you have the same brand of engine, that does not mean you have the ability to optimise the engine…

    “You have no chance of winning the world championship if you are not receiving the best engines from whoever is manufacturing your engines.”

    Pain for gain has been the team’s implicit mantra since 2015, so it should be of extreme concern to McLaren-Honda that Red Bull Racing’s customer engine-powered RB13 is billed as having serious title credentials.

    If the Renault-powered Red Bull machine win the championship, the reasoning McLaren put to abandon its long-term Mercedes engine partnership will be rendered worthless. The foundation of the partnership simply will fall away.

    Doubly worrying is that Red Bull Racing’s chief rival in the chase for Mercedes’s crown is Ferrari – and a Ferrari championship would undermine McLaren-Honda’s centrepiece: Fernando Alonso.

    Alonso has remained stoic for most of his Anglo-Japanese travails, arguing, and fairly so, that not winning the championship at Ferrari, with which he broke his contract two seasons early, is no different to not winning the championship with McLaren.

    ‘Regret’ therefore does not appear in his vocabulary – unless, that is, Ferrari were to beat McLaren to the title:

    “If [Ferrari] win the championship, probably yes [I will regret leaving] because I had a contract last year and this year with them… I probably will feel that I could have had that opportunity as well,” he said this time last season.

    Could the partnership, already riddled with tensions, survive a collapse in faith and near certain subsequent exit of perhaps the most highly regarded racing driver of his generation? Unlikely.

    Therefore McLaren-Honda’s equation is simple: pray that neither Red Bull Racing nor Ferrari is capable of breaking Mercedes’s dominance in 2017, because the championship falling to either team would deal a fatal blow to either the union’s reason for being or its spiritual focal point.

    The stakes have never been higher – it’s make or break for McLaren-Honda in 2017.

    Follow Michael on Twitter @MichaelLamonato

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    The Crowd Says (6)

    • March 7th 2017 @ 7:03pm
      Nomad said | March 7th 2017 @ 7:03pm | ! Report

      What a fantastic article, How come this site does not come up higher in the google searches? Im so bored of the jaded articles provided by the top four that usually come up on F1 news search.

      Keep up the good work!

      • Columnist

        March 9th 2017 @ 9:21am
        Michael Lamonato said | March 9th 2017 @ 9:21am | ! Report

        Ha, thanks, mate! I’ll have to have a word to Google!

    • Roar Rookie

      March 8th 2017 @ 9:14pm
      Chancho said | March 8th 2017 @ 9:14pm | ! Report

      After yesterday’s test, McLaren and Honda will have quite a bit of soul searching to do. Here in the UK I was watching some of the SkyF1 chat after the test and much of the focus was on the woes of McLaren who reported they had an electrical isseu – this was the oficial line from the team. As the show progressed they were getting remarks from the pit lane that it was mechanical and that Honda don’t know what it is and therefore how to overcome the issue/s. And to add insult to injury, there is talk that Honda have used at least 5 PU’s in testing so far (1 more than permitted for the entire season), and are yet to test their Melbourne spec engine.

      • Columnist

        March 9th 2017 @ 9:23am
        Michael Lamonato said | March 9th 2017 @ 9:23am | ! Report

        Yeah, the really concerning part is that there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of clarity about the problem they’re experiencing, and the Melbourne-spec power unit was supposed to be being tested this week, but hasn’t yet been installed. Fernando’s now starting to speak out against the engine, so frustrations are obviously ramping up. It’s all looking very grim.

    • March 9th 2017 @ 12:14am
      SonOfLordy said | March 9th 2017 @ 12:14am | ! Report

      McLaren are probably doomed to a future to that of Williams. I don’t think they’ve had a major sponsor on their cars for the last couple years. The rot set in with Whitmarsh and Sam Michael having influence.

      Honda was a disaster when they entered F1 as a manufacturer. McLaren seemed to be intent in reliving the glory days of 25 years early with the McLaren-Honda partnership, but I’m not sure what the Honda of the late-80’s had in common with Honda of the 2010’s.

      • Columnist

        March 9th 2017 @ 9:45am
        Michael Lamonato said | March 9th 2017 @ 9:45am | ! Report

        That’s an interesting parallel — there aren’t very many reasons McLaren couldn’t go the way of Williams. The McLaren Technology Group is a larger company, but both McLaren and Williams are profitable organisations with a history of F1 success — so if Williams can suffer through a lengthy non-competitive period, there’s no reason to assume the same won’t happen to McLaren.

        What’s interesting about the various Honda guises is, specifically comparing now to their constructor era, is that they gave a lot of power to Ross Brawn, a Honda outsider, who eventually turned the team into a winner (even if it was called Brawn GP at the time). There seems to be a real reluctance on Honda’s part to outsource knowledge. I know they’re treating it as a technical exercise, but after two, perhaps now three, years of getting almost nowhere, a serious poaching effort is probably required.

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