McLaren’s slump could be the new normal

Michael Lamonato Columnist

By Michael Lamonato, Michael Lamonato is a Roar Expert

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    Will McLaren ever hit the heights known previously now that Ron Dennis is gone? (McLaren)

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    The McLaren-Honda project is on the cusp of learning the difference between ‘if’ and ‘when’.

    For the first two seasons and throughout the pre-partnership hype McLaren-Honda was a matter of ‘when’. It was a question of *when* they’d stand on the podium, *when* they’d score their first race wins, and *when* they’d claim their first turbo-hybrid championship.

    The foundation of the reunion venture is Ron Dennis, the since ousted CEO and chairman of the McLaren company, and his famous – or perhaps now infamous – declaration that championship victory is impossible as an engine customer. Honda, the Japanese company famous for its brief but uber-successful eight-championship partnership with McLaren between 1988 and 1992, was only too willing to buy into the narrative, and it signed to be the deliverer of inevitable glory.

    It was therefore easy for the team, the media, pundits and fans to be swept along by the surety of the talk, and with two of F1’s favourite title-winning sons, Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso, behind the wheel, McLaren-Honda seemed obviously bound for renewed greatness.

    Then it was all a matter of when. Today the outlook is bleaker.

    McLaren’s 2017 struggles are chronicled in this column and elsewhere. Testing has been a nightmare of failed Honda power units and a reportedly subpar chassis resulting in woefully few laps.

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    But the real bombshell came during the second Test. While the Honda engine was vibrating itself into failure, Germany’s Auto Bild reported McLaren shareholder Mansour Ojjeh had informally enquired into whether Mercedes would consider supplying power units to the team. The BBC also ran with a similar story.

    The penny was dropping: McLaren-Honda is an if, not a when.

    But for McLaren it isn’t simply a matter of walking away from an engine partner it signed into the sport with a promise of a decade of collaboration – the consequences are far wider-reaching than a simple engine change.

    Consider first McLaren’s chronic lack of sponsorship, a malady that has afflicted the sport’s second oldest continuous team since Vodafone announced it would cease its title sponsorship deal in 2013.

    2012 Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix: McLaren's Lewis Hamilton

    Ron Dennis’s promise to procure a replacement when he swept to power in 2014 came to nil, and rather than a lack of major sponsorship being a mere product of a fiscally conservative marketplace, it became a theme for the team over subsequent years. A look at McLaren’s 2017 car reveals previous few sponsors adorning the livery.

    Indeed Honda commands the most visual real estate on the MCL32, which is unsurprising given estimates place the company’s financial contribution to the team at around $70 million. Plus an engine supply. Plus half the driver salaries. Plus, potentially, any budget gaps not filled by the McLaren parent company.

    Further compounding the financial misery is that with poor performance comes poor reward. Autosport’s prize money modelling puts the gap between ninth in the championship, where McLaren-Honda finished in its first season, and first at approximately $60 million. Though money paid in 2017 for last 2016’s sixth-place finish will boost the team’s coffers, dire predictions for this year’s car suggest another significant cash decrease for 2018.

    Put simply, the financial burden of either extricating McLaren from its Honda contract or remaining a poor Honda-powered performer is extremely heavy, and this is felt in the team’s ability to keep or attract its most talented staff, sign top-class drivers, and develop the car in the first place.

    It’s the recipe for disaster than damned Williams to its – whisper it – decade-long barren spell, the highlight of which was Pastor Maldonado’s unexpected and unrepeated victory in 2012 and culminated in a brief partnership with old engine supplier Renault.

    Only in 2013, with a switch to Mercedes power and as a result of the behind-the-scenes influence of Adam Parr, did Williams return to victory contention, albeit without scoring a win, in 2014, but even today it remains far from its early-90s championship-winning heyday.

    The once-great Williams is the case study for why a bottom-ranking McLaren is far from the temporary phenomenon it’s being made out to be.

    Just as the obviously talented Juan Pablo Montoya, Mark Webber, Nico Rosberg, Alexander Wurz and Nico Hülkenberg all moved through Williams without championship success, so to could the likes of Jenson Button, Fernando Alonso, and Stoffel Vandoorne’s careers comprise McLaren’s own modern Dark Ages.

    With Honda or not, McLaren is sitting on the precipice of a lost generation.

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    The Crowd Says (5)

    • March 21st 2017 @ 4:42pm
      SmithHatesMaxwell said | March 21st 2017 @ 4:42pm | ! Report

      Williams will never be a force in F1 again and McLaren looks set to meet the same fate. Unless there is a major shake up as in Mercedes leaving the sport as a constructor, Red Bull pulling out with Williams stumbling onto a good Renault engine. There’s no difference between Williams and Force India except history.

      Ron Dennis and especially Patrick Head are horrible people, so I’m happy to see their projects fail. And I do like the ruthlessness of F1 in a world of salary caps and being too big to fail. I have a feeling Liberty Media are going to try to implement their own version of a “salary cap” to Americanise the sport. Some kind of cost cutting does need to be implemented though.

      Really, you need to be a manufacturer these days to succeed especially given the increasing complexity of the engines. Red Bull is a special case because they have Newey, they are in F1 for promotional reasons and therefore are prepared to bleed money, and Renault F1 are a shambles.

      A couple years ago I really feared for the future of F1 and I thought we were going to lose what made it special. But that’s all gone now and none of it is coming back especially with the American owners and teams like Mercedes only consolidating their dominance. The engines are only going to become more complex, more expensive, even less aurally exciting in 2020.

      • Columnist

        March 23rd 2017 @ 10:26am
        Michael Lamonato said | March 23rd 2017 @ 10:26am | ! Report

        Yes, today you definitely need to be a manufacturer or have manufacturer levels of cash to be in the championship fight, but this is exactly why a salary cap of some sort should be implemented — to limit how much performance comes simply from finance.

        As for Ron Dennis and Patrick Head, I think it’s probably a bit much to call them horrible. They were harsh bosses, but they delivered results in their time. It’s probably more accurate to say the sport has passed them by to some degree.

    • March 21st 2017 @ 4:45pm
      steve said | March 21st 2017 @ 4:45pm | ! Report

      Its an interesting one. I would have thought that this third season from McLaren and Honda would have been when we started seeing them move up the grid. But alas, it appears that Honda have again supplied a donkey power unit to go along with a poor chassis. Poor old Fernando, its a good thing he is getting well paid, for his frustration level must be through the roof before we even hit the track and the season’s first practice session. It wouldn’t surprise if he walks away before the season is over.

      • Columnist

        March 23rd 2017 @ 10:27am
        Michael Lamonato said | March 23rd 2017 @ 10:27am | ! Report

        I think they probably thought the same about their third season! It is very sad to see, especially for Fernando. To some degree he made this bed himself having walked out of Ferrari, but this car and engine package is so beneath him that it qualifies as a real injustice.

    • March 23rd 2017 @ 10:53am
      Bamboo said | March 23rd 2017 @ 10:53am | ! Report

      If Boullier claims McLaren would be winning with Mercedes power, why didn’t they swap Alonso for Mercedes power when Mercedes were looking for a Rosberg replacement?

      I’m a huge Alonso fan, but McLaren have a better chance of winning with a Mercedes engine than Alonso driving a Honda powered McLaren.

      Swap Alonso for Mercedes power, with McLaren paying his 2017 contract ($40m). The future economic benefit from a prizemoney and sponsorship perspective if they are at the pointy end of the grid is worth far more than $40m. Mercedes in return get a free Fernando Alonso, given McLaren are paying his salary, and a great deal of ongoing publicity given Alonso and Hamilton as team mates is something a lot of people simply want to see!

      McLaren thought they were getting the best engine to go with the best driver. Given recent weeks, there is every chance they have the worst engine and a driver wanting out.

      Ironic that in a attempt to rid the team of all things Ron Dennis, their biggest issue is the partnership that Ron Dennis had such success with in the 80s/90s.

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