I know McLaren aren’t happy with the way they’ve been performing over the last couple of years and I also know that losing their Mercedes engine supply was a big impact—so much so that former CEO Ron Dennis immediately brokered a deal with Honda which, on paper, seemed like the right thing to do.
Having no choice for an engine is not a new thing in the era of the hybrid power unit. Last year fans and folks in the paddock were telling Red Bull to Take their temper tantrum home and many comments I saw were along the lines of, “don’t let the door hit you in the *** on your way out”. I argued back then that Red Bull was hugely important to F1 and being denied a competitive race engine supply was a bad move. The FIA agreed and wrote regulations to prevent that from happening again…except, it is happening again.
McLaren are trying to secure a Renault engine supply deal and the manufacturer says they can’t add another team to their roster. This leaves McLaren trying to take Toro Rosso’s supply contract leaving the junior team with a Honda deal. F1 owners, Liberty Media, say they are trying everything they can, along with the FIA’s Jean Todt, to keep Honda in F1.
The difference in McLaren’s approach to their engine displeasure and Red Bull’s last year is that they haven’t threatened to leave the sport should they not get a competitive engine. I still say that Red Bull are hugely important to F1 due to the amount of resources they invest in the series—including bankrolling the Austrian Grand Prix—and McLaren are equally important from a historic and resource perspective.
The problem is that these engines are so complex that only car manufacturers have the resources to create them or at least the will to invest in creating them. Of those manufacturers, only two have gotten it right with one, Mercedes, having the upper hand and that advantage—I argued back in 2014—would be baked in until the engine regulations change in 2020. While many disagreed with me, last weekend’s Italian Grand Prix should go a long way to suggesting I was correct in my concern.
Now McLaren are desperately trying to secure a Renault contract but I’ll offer this thought to ponder—why are they so eager to jettison Honda and get a Renault?
The fact is, I am curious as to the prime mover in McLaren at this point. Reading many news articles would suggest they are trying everything they can, including torching their Honda relationship, to keep Fernando Alonso. I understand why, he’s a singular talent for sure, but is that short-term thinking?
Honda isn’t performing the way they should be at this stage and if McLaren feel that the Honda relationship will never produce fruit and a race-winning engine, then I understand but the engine regulations are set to change in two seasons and as Ron Dennis knew, having a bespoke and single supplier contract that you can control is a massive advantage. It’s a bit like having your own manufacturer.
I have all the respect in the world for Fernando Alonso but I’m not sure that torching your only engine supply deal in order to keep him happy is the best strategy. Honda is not competitive yet but if you’re building a long-term partnership and need a manufacturer relationship that you can steer, Honda seems like a good long-term strategy. Especially if you have a person at the table with Ross Brawn and the FIA and you have an inkling of what the new engine format could be.
Twelve months on and we now have another massive player in F1 desperate for a competitive engine. I’m not suggesting that Honda have no liability in this equation and they should have gotten on top of their performance deficit by now but regardless, F1 and the FIA know how important it is to have a manufacturer in the sport—because no one else can afford to build these hybrid engines—and if Honda leaves, the series is in trouble as it is anchored to an engine format that only three entities can make and only one of them have an engine that is top shelf. Of those three, two of them don’t want to supply Red Bull or McLaren for fear of instantly creating a competitive team that could outperform them due to their chassis design and resources.
McLaren need a long-term partner that can ultimately have the resources to invest in R&D and create an engine to compete with Ferrari and Mercedes. Since VW/Porsche/Audi seem to be focused on Formula E and no other manufacturer has raised an interest in entering F1, McLaren may lose Alonso but keeping Honda, renewing their joint effort and even bringing in engine specialists to help the team seems like a better long-term option.
F1 and the FIA need to step in and help the situation to retain Honda’s involvement. They have limited options for other manufacturers like Toyota, Audi, Mazda etc and none of those companies would want to enter in F1 now because the engine regulations are relatively well matured at this point. Honda has to stay and F1 has to keep them even if they need to assist in development.
What would a Renault engine supply really give McLaren? An Alonso contract extension and more consistent Q3 and top 10 points finishes? Is that enough in the long term? Alonso is a singular talent and arguably the best driver on the grid but long term, Honda could be the best engine resource to get McLaren competitive again.
If the 2020 regulations change but are still anchored to this hybrid format with a V6, I believe Honda will eventually get on top of the situation. Sure, Alonso may leave but McLaren Honda won’t and the entire team need that long-term stability regardless if they aren’t winning races yet. Patience doesn’t come cheap in Formula 1 but prudence can win titles.
Christian Horner: “This engine has done nothing positive for Formula 1 since it was introduced.”