It is no secret that McLaren’s decision to ditch Honda works Formula 1 engines for Renault customer units cost the Woking outfit $100-million, but the reality is that the team did not reach the heights they expected and one wonders if the change to Renault has been a total failure.
McLaren Group chairman Bahrain’s Sheikh Mohammed bin Essa Al Khalifa, boss of Mumtalakat investment fund which is the majority and controlling shareholder of the Woking organisation, told BBC of the Honda split, “It was an expensive decision” but added it was “in the long-term interests of the company.”
McLaren are going through the worst patch in their history. Performance is woeful, not even Fernando Alonso could do much with the MCL33 – probably the worst car ever built at Woking.
Since taking over team chief Zak Brown has not delivered on the sponsorship front which was meant to be his forte. The change to Renault engines (and success) would mean more sponsors it was trumpeted, wrong again.
On the management front, several heads rolled. Brown sent blameless Eric Boullier packing in July to be replaced by (pal?) Gil de Ferran, whose F1 experience is limited but had hovered in the background since the team’s foray to the Indy 500 last year. The intent now clear to all.
In retrospect, the Brazilian made no difference whatsoever to the team’s performance on track but then tech is not his domain, his role was supposed to “help” their drivers but his input made no difference to Stoffel Vandoorne’s form, while it is highly unlikely Alonso would be tapping into him for advice regarding F1.
What he has done for highly hyped rookie Lando Norris and will do for new boy Carlos Sainz remains to be seen.
Facts are, by coincidence or not, McLaren have gone backwards since De Ferran took over the role that Boullier once occupied. The team scored 44 points in the first nine races of the season with the Frenchman in the hot seat. Since his departure, under his successor, they have scored only 18 points.
The team finished sixth in this year’s championship mostly due to Alonso’s gutsy efforts. The Spaniard hauled in 50 points of the 62 points they scored this season.
With a lesser mortal in the car McLaren would have been lucky to score 20 or 25 all season. Without the ‘Fernando-factor’ they would have been ninth and only better than Williams, another once mega-force now reduced to a bottom-feeder in the Formula 1 bog.
Next year, thanks to McLaren, Honda will power the four Red Bull cars (Toro Rosso included) and only time will tell if they will be able to win races with the Japanese manufacturer.
The first year of the Toro Rosso-Honda was not entirely convincing on track in a season which was essentially test-lab for next year’s effort. But can Honda build a package to help Red Bull challenge the dominance of Mercedes or at least match Ferrari? We can only know in February…
As much as everyone at Red Bull are super motivated by the change, predictions of grandeur prevail, there is a smug confidence within the camp suggesting they know something we don’t.
But we have heard and seen this all before, not long ago, when so much was expected of the second coming of McLaren-Honda – we know how that ended.
Meanwhile, Sheikh Khalifa is wary of the possibility that Honda and Red Bull co-operative will succeed but is adamant his organisation and the Japanese company were in a failed partnership which could not be salvaged.
He explained, “On the one hand, frustrating. On the other, we are committed to this. The way we were heading, the change was bound to come. Tremendous respect for Honda but the relationship wasn’t working and so we had a civilised discussion and we decided to part ways.”
“We will see this through. Frustrating, because we are racers at heart, but you just have to power through,” added Sheikh Khalifa could learn from the Toyota F1 disaster a decade ago, which proved that throwing mega-money at a grossly mismanaged team does not buy success, instead it burns a serious hole in the pocket.
Big Question: Are McLaren paying a high price for bad decisions?