As Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton streak away towards their respective sixth Formula One world championships, the 2019 season at the front has largely been a tale of contrasting fortunes for rivals Ferrari and Red Bull.
It seems the shock and denial has finally subsided and it’s become apparent that any time frame for progress lies in the long term – McLaren is now openly touting a future independent from Honda.
McLaren racing director Eric Boullier’s remark following the Canadian Grand Prix, that Honda’s performance is “absolutely not good enough”, only mildly describes the relationship.
Separation from the Japanese marque shapes as the Woking outfit’s sole opportunity to retain Fernando Alonso, who has cut an increasingly forlorn figure in 2017.
The Spaniard has returned to F1 from his brief dalliance with the Indianapolis 500 to discover no improvement.
Alonso’s sentiment, “if we are winning before September… I will make a decision and I will stay”, forces matters to a head. If McLaren doesn’t act, he will – and short of all cars being forced to run Honda engines, Nigel Mansell is a greater prospect of claiming victory than McLaren is by the Spaniard’s imposed deadline.
The MCL32 is a handy chassis in Alonso’s hands, frequently running inside the top ten, as it did in the final stages of the Canadian Grand Prix.
On Sunday, in Montreal, McLaren “dared to hope”, said Boullier, until “another gut wrenching failure” in Alonso’s late retirement. The Spaniard is yet to greet the chequered flag in six attempts.
Having kept their counsel considerably longer than Red Bull Racing did when Renault delivered its undercooked 2014 engine, the “serious concerns” CEO Zak Brown refers to are fully formed.
The financial costs and diminished title potential that come with severing ties with Honda must take a back seat – the McLaren brand overall is being cheapened, and each engine failure threatens to turn a proud legacy into a distant memory.
Accountability for the collaboration can be laid at the feet of several individuals, though many are no longer employed at Woking.
The man most responsible is Ron Dennis, whose departure from McLaren was a manifestation of Honda’s failures and his stubborn refusal to acknowledge his reduced commercial bargaining power.
The inevitable decision to conclude the Honda partnership will be judged fiercely, yet whoever is brave enough to push the button stands to be feted as the individual who lifted McLaren from its darkest hour.
At the end of 2014, when McLaren switched from Mercedes to Honda power, the prospect of the team swallowing its pride and reforming with the German marque just three years later would never have been envisaged.
Even so, the Silver Arrows offers a known quantity, which happens to be the triple reigning constructors’ champion, meaning McLaren could expect to sit in the midfield at worst – think Williams or Red Bull Racing as an optimum example, either team representing an infinite improvement on the status quo.
Dennis played a central part in the protracted divorce from Mercedes, which commenced when the German giant returned to Formula One as a constructor in 2010, as he sought an independent identity from the manufacturer in McLaren’s road car division. Dennis’ absence clears the path for the pair to renew forces in whichever capacity deemed fit.
It’s a long shot, though Mercedes’ own future may lean towards returning to supplier-only status after the 2020 commercial and regulatory framework is set, thus rekindling ties could provide McLaren extra incentive, even if it could take a few years for a works-style deal to come to fruition
As Brown surmised to Reuters, “a year in Formula One is an eternity, three years is a decade. And you can’t just go on forever.”
It has been three long years for fans and employees of McLaren, which could translate to a literal decade unless decisive action is taken immediately, as unpleasant as the process might be.
If an overdue lashing in the spotlight doesn’t speak to Honda’s immense pride, their failure will be complete, and they can hardly blame McLaren for losing faith long after many others would have run for the hills.
That said, McLaren must ask serious questions about how the relationship came to be in the first place if there is to be a learning experience leading to a successful future.