McLaren heading to Melbourne on the back of a pre-season marred by unreliability is not a new headline. It is, however, a somewhat unexpected case of groundhog day ahead of a season in which so much has changed.
The dream of rekindling former glories with engine partner Honda ended in divorce at the end of last season, as McLaren ditched the Japanese manufacturer in favour of the Renault supply – a power unit which carried Red Bull to three race victories last season.
The switch from Honda to Renault will have no doubt provided reassurance to star driver Fernando Alonso, who has openly admitted that during the difficult times last season he considered a move away from McLaren and Formula 1 altogether. Alonso will have unquestionably been buoyed by the idea of a race-winning power unit propelling his car this season.
A car which should have a very competitive chassis. Throughout the past three years, McLaren has reiterated the strength of its chassis at every possible opportunity and GPS data has gone some way to support those claims.
This year should, therefore, be the year where McLaren returns to glory by scoring countless podiums, race wins and maybe even a championship tilt – not in reality.
McLaren only finalised the deal to run Renault power units in September. The team suggested that the late decision meant that the new car was two weeks behind schedule. While the deficit was downplayed, two weeks is a long time in F1 particularly when it comes to power unit integration.
The tight timescale showed in testing. Holes were cut in the engine cover in order to eliminate heat pockets that were caused by the exhaust positioning and the team faced hydraulic leaks, oil leaks and turbo issues. McLaren completed the least mileage of any team during the test, recording 599 laps compared with Mercedes 1040-lap benchmark.
“We didn’t have the reliability we had hoped for in winter testing, but all the issues we faced have since been addressed back at the factory,” racing director Eric Boullier stated. “There’s a huge amount of work going on behind the scenes to ensure we leave no stone unturned in our quest to extract the maximum pace we can from our new package from the first race.”
Renault’s flaws have not been concealed and despite Red Bull’s race wins and McLaren’s optimism, the French supplier has been third-best behind Mercedes and Ferrari throughout the V6 hybrid era.
The power unit is suspected to be 40-50bhp adrift of the front-running Mercedes and reliability has always been a concern. The revolutionary new MGU-K, promised to boost performance significantly was shelved at the start of 2017 after reliability concerns and while its introduction is on Renault’s roadmap, no date has been publically targeted.
The good news for McLaren is that Renault enjoyed a generally positive pre-season. Reliability in the hands of both Red Bull and the Renault works team was at its best since the introduction of power units. McLaren will inevitably come to terms with any installation and packaging issues and when the team does, it will at least have an engine with better reliability than in the Honda era.
What McLaren will also have is a race-winning power unit but that is a poison chalice. McLaren will face direct comparisons against Red Bull this season – the team tipped to be Mercedes’ closest challengers – and failure to match its pace will result in uncomfortable questions for McLaren management. The threat of being exposed is high and those claims of wielding a chassis equal to the might of Red Bull for the past three seasons are about to be challenged.
It is not as though attention would be deflected to driver performance either. In Fernando Alonso, the team has been able to retain F1’s most determined and tenacious racer who will invariably extract every ounce of performance from the package. Based on his relative pace towards the end of last season, Stoffel Vandoorne will also take the MCL33 to its limits in his second season in F1.
Having such a strong driver line-up does invite pressure. McLaren needs to deliver a huge step in performance this season to keep Alonso happy. Having fared well at the Indy 500 last season, Alonso is relentless in pursuing his triple crown aspirations, taking on the challenge of not only the Le Mans 24 Hours this year but the entire WEC programme with Toyota alongside his F1 commitments.
Alonso would not be short of things to do if he turned his back on McLaren and the team will wonder how much more pain the two-time champion will be willing to endure. That will add pressure if the testing gremlins hinder McLaren’s early season form.
It is also difficult to imagine the McLaren board of directors tolerating another season of woe. The beautifully simple papaya orange livery looks a million dollars but in turn highlights the lack of dollars the team is bringing in through sponsorship at the moment. Logos are sparse.
While McLaren has announced new partnerships over the winter, companies like Dell have not paid for the premium advertising spots on the car. Zak Brown man be a canny businessman but it is success on-track which will entice sponsors back to McLaren.
But what is on-track success in 2018? Fourth place in the constructors’ championship would be a sizeable improvement from its ninth place finish in ‘17 and secure McLaren’s spot as F1’s best-of-the-rest in an era in which the gap to the top three is seemingly insurmountable. Snatching a podium en route would also be a key marker of McLaren’s progress and vindication for the expensive power unit switch.
Timesheets from testing were fairly academic, but Alonso’s pace in the final 10 minutes of pre-season testing – in which he posted a 1m17.784s to end the winter third on the overall timesheet – has provided some late pre-season optimism. At least a tonic following an otherwise concerning fortnight for McLaren fans, team members and sponsors.
This season will be better than last season, but better will not necessarily be enough. McLaren needs to have a breakthrough year and the pressure to do so is well and truly on.