One of my favourite teams is somewhat in the doldrums at the moment, so what’s gone wrong? Let’s try and break it down, but first a bit of background. OK, a lot of background!
Any errors are mine and mine only, mainly down to poor research or a hazy memory, probably both.
Way back in 1995, McLaren agreed a deal with Mercedes-Benz, who back then were an engine supplier only, for engines. Over time Mercedes-Benz’s involvement meant a 40% stake in the team by 2011 and over the next few years McLaren were very much a front-running team and one of MB’s prime partners, almost to the point of being a works team, much like Red Bull when Renault didn’t have a team of their own.
Honda had their own team after taking over the BAR team in September 2005, continuing with Lucky Strike sponsorship at the time. The car wasn’t fantastic but was developed as the season went on and started to become more competitive later in the season and Jenson Button won his first race at the Hungarian Grand Prix despite starting the race in 14th.
Rules outlawing tobacco sponsorship stopped the BAT money train but in what would become a rather fortuitous appointment, ex Ferrari Technical Director Ross Brawn was recruited as team Principal in November 2007.
The Honda ‘Earth’ car again performed poorly in 2008, only getting on the Podium once in the hands of Rubens Barrichello at a wet British GP when he changed to Wet tyres at just the right time. Honda switched development to the 2009 car by mid-season, knowing that a fundamental change in regulations was coming.
Then the Global Economic Crisis happened and Motorsport activities from many manufacturers around the world were curtailed by falling car sales and rising budgets. Honda, apparently spending $300-million a season on the F1 program, which by now had 700 staff, decided it couldn’t continue and axed it’s F1 program, stating falling global sales as the reason and gave little to no notice in November 2008.
“But what does all this have to do with McLaren?” I hear you ask. I’m coming to that, don’t worry.
Now, McLaren during this time were still headed by Ron Dennis who bought the McLaren racing team, originally founded by New Zealand racing driver Bruce McLaren way back in 1963.
In 1981, Ron Dennis’s Project Four Racing and the McLaren team merged and knowing the history of the McLaren name, that was the name that was kept, although every car since has had the designation MP, for McLaren Project until the MP4- naming protocol was dropped for the return of Honda power in 2015. Ron quickly bought out all the original shareholders and had full control of the team by 1982.
This was some of McLaren’s most successful periods with both John Barnard who created the first Carbon Fibre chassis in 1980 and Adrian Newey from 1997 to 2005 designing some of the most iconic and successful F1 cars ever with engine partners Porsche (branded as TAG. Yes that TAG in the back of the Red Bull as a TAG-Heuer, although now two separate companies), Mercedes-Benz and Honda.
Many believe the first signs of McLaren’s impending fall started here when Ron wouldn’t consider giving Adrian Newey a shareholding in the team and, some say, tried to low-ball him when the next contract was due. Many of Ron’s quirks regarding his fastidious nature and demand for perfection frustrated Newey as well who once proclaimed Grey was Ron’s favourite colour.
Newey then signed up with Red Bull in 2006 and has been there ever since, winning multiple Constructors championships and guiding Sebastian Vettel to four Drivers championships in a row, from 2010 through 2014.
Honda withdrew from F1 at the end of 1992 and McLaren had some success after signing with Ford for 1993 with Ayrton Senna, but paired him with Michael Andretti, who, putting it politely, had a somewhat less successful season.
McLaren flirted with a Lamborghini V12 for 1994 but eventually partnered with Peugeot. McLaren fans don’t like talking about the 1994 season. Then in 1995 they signed a deal for a Mercedes-Benz branded Ilmor engine.
By this time Ron Dennis and his long time business partner and friend Mansour Ojjeh (Boss of TAG) both owned considerable stakes in the team along with the Bahraini Sovereign Wealth fund Mumtalakat but they fell out after nearly 30 years of friendship, mainly over control of McLaren.
Rumours of Ron’s wife having ‘meetings’ with Ojjeh were, of course, never confirmed by anyone I’ve read or heard from so remain just that, rumour. Ron and his wife Lisa divorced soon after and Lisa Dennis and Ojjeh are apparently still good friends afterwards as well which upset Ron even further.
The main issue though was around the 2011 Bahrain Grand Prix. Being that the team was partially owned by Mumtalakat, the Bahraini Sovereign Wealth fund, the discussions of the Bahrain Grand Prix being cancelled due to civil unrest (put down roughly, swiftly and without much care for anyone getting hurt by the Bahraini Royal Family and the Army & Police), there was apparently a vote on whether McLaren should race and Ojjeh and the Mumtalakat representatives voted yes but Dennis voted no, one of the few times Dennis and Ojjeh voted differently.
The GP eventually went ahead without issue but Ojjeh and Mumtalakat were upset at the seeming lack of support and endorsement of the Bahrain GP from Ron himself, causing friction between the main shareholders.
Around this time Ojjeh started to suffer from a deteriorating lung disease which ended up with him getting a double Lung transplant in late 2013. It’s again rumoured that while Ojjeh was recovering from this major surgery, and possibly even while he was still in hospital, Dennis attempted to take full control over McLaren after courting Chinese investors for many months under the guise of investment which eventually ended up being an attempted takeover.
This incensed Ojjeh even more and the two fell out for good and rarely talked except in board meetings. This was the beginning of the end for Ron & McLaren.
A few years before this Dennis stepped down as head of the McLaren F1 team to pay more attention to the fledgling Road car department and Martin Whitmarsh became Team Principal in 2009. McLaren didn’t do as well as they’ve historically done while Whitmarsh was in charge although Lewis Hamilton was in mathematical contention for the 2010 WDC, being only 24 points behind Fernando Alonso going into the last race.
Whitmarsh was ousted by Dennis, despite being recommended by him, at the end of 2013 and Dennis became head of the F1 team again. Whitmarsh and Ojjeh were good friends which annoyed Ojjeh even more.
There was, of course a huge scandal regarding Nigel Stepney, his good friend and McLaren designer Mike Coughlan and leaked Ferrari plans being supplied by the former to the latter but rather than go through the whole sorry tale, you should click here to read this excellent article about it here>>>
Whitmarsh does have a bigger role to play in the McLaren saga though. After Honda withdrew they agreed to sell the whole team to Ross Brawn, by then Team Principal for a nominal fee, such was the respect Honda had for him, creating Brawn GP. But they had no engine! Brawn, being well known and respected around the Paddock for many years, was desperate for an Engine, any Engine!
Whitmarsh, who by now was also head of the Formula One Teams Association offered to facilitate a deal between Mercedes Benz and Brawn GP and a deal was duly signed a few weeks later. No one, except perhaps some at Honda/Brawn GP knew what was about to happen and the car had to be redesigned to accept the new MB Engine.
Of course as we all know, the BGP001 was far ahead of the field thanks to the millions spent on development by Honda since the middle of 2008 prior to their withdrawal and a loophole in the rules being identified by an unknown Honda Engineer in Japan which allowed a ‘double Diffuser’ at the rear of the car, massively increasing downforce but with little drag, something missed by everyone other than Williams and Toyota.
The MB engine being one of the most powerful certainly helped though and the car was streets ahead of the rest of the field, lapping as much as a second faster in the first pre-season test.
Towards the end of 2009, despite teams with more money catching them Jenson Button won the World Drivers championship for Brawn GP, one of the biggest underdog stories in F1 history. Mercedes were paying attention though and it was announced in November 2009 that Mercedes Benz in partnership with Aabar investments purchased a controlling 75.1% share in Brawn GP and a factory Mercedes team was back in F1 for the first time since 1955. This could perhaps be seen as McLaren playing a part in their own downfall, but should be seen as Whitmarsh putting the sport first, as he should as head of FOTA.
So, rather a lot of backstory about Honda, McLaren and Mercedes Benz.
McLaren continued with MB power as a customer team until 2015 when they announced that with the new Hybrid engine regulations and being unhappy at paying for their Engines as customer team, they entered into a ten-year deal with Honda who were returning to F1 again as an engine supplier. Ron had been quoted as saying ‘You can’t win in F1 as a customer team’ which was somewhat true.
Designing a car around an engine was much better than designing a car and then having to change it to make the engine work. Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button were signed when apparently Ron Dennis wanted McLaren Young Driver Kevin Magnussen as Alonso’s partner and Ojjeh wanted Button.
Ojjeh won. As it happened though Magnussen raced in the first GP of the season when Alonso suffered a concussion during pre-season testing in Barcelona but was yet another wedge between Ojjeh and Dennis.
The Honda relationship started out, for want of a better word, as disastrous. The car was woefully unreliable in pre-season testing and at the opening Australian Grand Prix Button’s car was lapped twice and finished last in what was the cars longest uninterrupted running time so far.
The team were given multiple grid penalties for replacing components throughout the season including a 105 place grid penalty at Spa! The car had gradual improvements as time went on but was never troubling the top teams. A similar story with slightly improved results was the case in 2016.
This seemed to stem from McLaren’s insistence on as small an engine as possible, the so called ‘size zero’ engine demand governed by aerodynamics which prompted the layout that Honda ran with for the first two years with the Turbo and MGU-H in the V of the Engine.
Honda said they could make Mercedes levels of power with this layout but proved to cause packaging problems and prevented major changes to the size of the MGU-H which, according to the regulations, could supply an unlimited amount of power back into the engine, something Mercedes managed to great effect.
Vibrations and issues with oil tank design causing oil starvation were also apparent and eventually were overcome, but the ‘flawed’ engine layout remained and thanks to the Engine Homologation regulations couldn’t be fixed until the end of the season.
A further attempt to redesign the engine layout while keeping the ‘size zero’ approach brought improvements, but again the layout prevented major improvements in power and drivability. Eventually, after two years of frustration McLaren agreed with Honda’s requests and allowed a larger engine and to design the car around this for the start of 2017.
This then allowed Honda to facilitate an almost completely new engine design, matching Mercedes in splitting the Turbocharger and Compressor with a shaft running up the middle of the V linking the two with a much larger MGU-H at the compressor end taking power from, and able to supply power to, the shaft connecting the turbocharger and compressor.
This was fundamentally different to a standard road car turbocharger and compressor arrangement where the shaft is measured in centimetres as they’re often part of the same housing.
Ron Dennis was finally ousted by Ojjeh and Mumtalakat at the end of 2016 and despite Dennis even going to court the decision to remove him from the race team stuck and he resigned his position and sold his remaining shares soon after.
Eric Boullier and Zak Brown were hired, Boullier as Team Principal and Brown as head of Marketing. Brown eventually took over as the head of the F1 team midway through 2017, something some found unusual as he has no F1 knowledge or history at all.
He was a professional race driver though and actually won a Formula Ford race at Donington Park and came 2nd in the GT2 category at the renowned Daytona 24 Hour race in 1998, 2nd in the 12h of Sebring and 3rd at Road Atlanta in a factory Porsche 911.
It was then that he created United Autosports, mainly focussed on Endurance racing which the team enjoyed success, including running McLaren MP4-12C’s in the Blancpain Endurance Series in 2012.
In September 2017 it was announced in what was at the time the biggest known secret in the F1 Paddock that Honda and McLaren were to split, less than three years into a ten year agreement. McLaren orchestrated an agreement with Toro Rosso and Renault to swap their Honda engines for the Renault Engines being run by Toro Rosso and Honda would make Toro Rosso their default factory team, the first time they’d had full factory support in their history.
McLaren’s troubles didn’t seem to end there though. Even with Renault power the car underperformed compared to where they were supposed to be, if you believed Brown and Boullier’s talk all through 2017 that McLaren had the best Chassis on the grid.
Alonso scraped a 5th place finish at the Australian Grand Prix thanks to five DNF’s and various other cars with teething troubles and mechanical issues. More top ten finishes for Alonso and Vandoorne occurred but the car was still well behind fellow Renault runners Red Bull and the works Renault team, their only true benchmarks.
The car was low on downforce, high on drag and the Renault engine was, by now, no more powerful than the Honda that McLaren rejected, now in the back of the Toro Rosso and still well behind the Mercedes and Ferrari engines.
On ‘power’ tracks like Canada and Azerbaijan the car was very slow on the straights and at the most recent French GP at Paul Ricard the car was well off the pace with Alonso retiring and Vandoorne finishing a lap down.
The team then admitted that they were experiencing a very poor correlation between the wind tunnel testing and results on the track leaving them grasping at straws and conducting aero testing at every track in the practice sessions rather than dialling the car into the track as normally happens.
Toro Rosso’s partner team Red Bull, having run with Renault Power for many years, and now having ‘inside’ information about the Honda powerplant, then signed an agreement with Honda to become their works partner for the 2019 and 2020 seasons with new and apparently cheaper engine regulations expected to be announced soon for the 2021 season.
Then, on the 4th of July 2018 McLaren announced that Eric Boullier had resigned (despite saying only a few days earlier he has no intention of resigning), seemingly taking the blame for McLaren’s poor performance.
Andrea Stella, who was previously Alonso’s Race Engineer when they were both at Ferrari, was promoted from Head of Race Operations to Performance Director and a new Sporting Director role has been created for Gil de Ferran, ex-Champ Car (the forerunner to Indycar) champion in 2000 and 2001. Simon Roberts, Chief Operating Office of McLaren Racing will now oversee Production, Engineering and Logistics.
I’m still not 100% convinced that Zak Brown, someone with oodles of commercial experience but no engineering experience at all is the right person to lead them, but time will tell.
So where did it all go wrong?
This part is my opinion rather than mostly fact above. Anyway, where I believe McLaren made a mistake is believing what was essentially a brand new ICE, MGU-H, MGU-K and battery store for the 2017 season would be reliable and powerful straight away.
It was at the start of it’s development cycle whereas Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault had anything from 3 to 5 years of development time to ascertain the optimal setup, fine tune it and make it powerful and reliable. All without being publicly criticised by Eric Boullier, Zak Brown and an wildly popular but angry Spaniard on international TV every two weeks.
Honda came in a year earlier than planned on McLaren’s suggestion, were handicapped by McLaren’s demands and the ridiculous and ill-thought out ‘Token’ system limiting upgrades throughout the 2015 season meant Honda were permanently on the back foot until at least the back end of 2016. McLaren expected too much, and now, I suspect, they’ll watch the Red Bull AND the Toro Rosso beat them with the engine they used to have. And be an estimated £100-million down a season for the privilege.
Also in the latest McLaren company filings is a few surprising pieces of information but the main one is that McLaren have sold a number of their historic cars rumoured to be in part to pay of Ron Dennis’s pay off form the board for his shares and you can find out what’s been sold here>>>
The filings also show that the McLaren Group has seen it’s total revenue fall by 3% to £871-million and a £1.3-million profit in 2016 turned into a £66-million pre-tax loss for 2017. Of course this is only my conjecture, but I’d imagine a lot of that is down to cancelling the Honda deal, paying Alonso themselves when it’s believed Honda paid him directly for 2015, ’16 and ’17 and paying for engines from Renault.
McLaren were talking all through 2017 that they had one of the best chassis on the grid and certainly times, when Alonso got fastest lap at the Hungarian GP after stopping for fresh tyres, seemed to confirm this and they constantly threw Honda under the bus claiming if they had Mercedes power they’d be winning races.
I was a huge McLaren fan, still am to a certain extent, but their demise has pained me greatly recently. They need fundamental change, a full root and branch cull and re-energisation from new staff, but I can’t see it happening while the board and owners are too worried about saving face and boasting when they need to take a cold, hard look at themselves.
Indeed Williams struggles haven’t made anywhere near the waves McLaren’s have, I suspect because Williams know they are struggling and freely admit it. Being humble goes a long way.