While the world continues to wait for press release confirmation, Autosport has reported that McLaren and Honda’s turbulent partnership has come to an end, with Renault power units set to propel McLaren into 2018 and beyond.
The reports are far from surprising. The iconic brands reformed their partnership ahead of the 2015 season – a year after the new turbo-hybrid V6 era of Formula 1 had dawned. McLaren boss Ron Dennis described the early prototype Honda power unit as a “piece of jewelry.”
It was his belief that McLaren could not win drivers’ and constructors’ world titles as a customer entry that facilitated the switch from Mercedes to a Honda supply.
Mercedes power was the pre-eminent force at the time and it was an obvious risk to sacrifice the strongest power unit in the field for an untested alternative, but a chance that the McLaren board was willing to take.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing. McLaren has ultimately rued that decision and following a three-year stint powered by an unreliable and uncompetitive Honda power unit – in which podiums have been pipe-dreams – the board has been forced to backtrack on its philosophy.
McLaren will be a customer entry in 2018. According to Dennis, who is now retired from both the sport and McLaren’s board of directors, that is a position from which they cannot possibly find success.
They will, however, unquestionably be more competitive. Honda continues to struggle with deployment issues and McLaren drivers Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne have been forced to endure a package that is reportedly as much as 100bhp down on the Mercedes power unit.
To place that number into perspective, during Renault’s crisis in 2015 their power unit was suspected to have been 60bhp adrift of the Mercedes. Red Bull’s three victories in the past two years alone serve to demonstrate that Renault has not only improved but can also propel a team to the top, albeit not a match for either Mercedes or Ferrari on outright power.
However, it is important to note Red Bull’s position in the power unit politics that has dominated this month’s headlines. Red Bull has worked hard to get Toro Rosso out of their firm Renault contract for 2018 – sacrificing Carlos Sainz Jr to Renault in the process – because they want Toro Rosso to be powered by Honda.
Long term, having a Honda supply in the sister team will allow them to monitor the progress of the Japanese manufacturer. If Honda suddenly finds a breakthrough, Red Bull has a potential path to leave Renault and become a works outfit itself with Honda.
Being a works team would provide Red Bull with its strongest chance to rekindle the previous pre-eminence they enjoyed. While McLaren has worked their way out of their works supply, Red Bull has shaped a long term option to take up works team status. That has to concern McLaren.
Honda’s departure does at least mean that McLaren can retain Alonso’s star services into 2018 and possibly beyond. Alonso is still widely regarded as one of F1’s elite drivers – considered even to be the very best by a vast portion of the paddock – which means that his contribution to the package is invaluable.
McLaren will now have to raid the piggy bank in order to cover Alonso’s wage demands. Honda has paid his eye-watering salary – suspected to be in the region of $40 million per year – over the past three years. In addition, McLaren now has to pay for their power units. In short, returning to customer status is an expensive decision.
Expenses that they need to see a return on. It is now a matter of urgency to see an improvement in performance and securing Renault power units will deliver a boost short term.
However, long term consequences of the decision are unclear. Winning a championship as a customer team will be far from straightforward. Red Bull seem to be acknowledging the fact and will be keeping a keen eye on Honda’s progress.
If Dennis was right all along, then McLaren might have jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire.