“We have only one problem: that is the power unit. There is no reliability and there is no power. We are 30kmph down on the straight, every straight” – Fernando Alonso, two times world champion, racing for McLaren Honda, on the 6th day of F1 2017 winter testing at Barcelona, Spain.
Any reference to the McLaren Honda partnership will include the record breaking 1988 F1 season when the team won 15 of 16 races in the season. The British-Japanese alliance then went on to win 3 more championships before Honda withdrew from Formula 1 in 1992. Cut to 2017, and the 3rd year of the McLaren Honda alliance, the team have endured multiple troubles and breakdowns with the Honda power unit in winter testing. What is more worrying for the team is that they have run the lowest mileage amongst all teams in testing.
2017 was touted as the breakthrough year for McLaren Honda due to rule changes on the chassis side and a redesign of the Honda power unit to ape the Mercedes. Instead, the team appears to be back to where it was in 2015 (the first year of the partnership) as it finished 9th in the championship due to a troublesome Honda power unit.
The McLaren Honda alliance materialised in 1988 due to Ron Dennis’ hectic parleys with Honda in the preceding years that convinced them to shift to McLaren from Williams. McLaren were losing their competitive advantage due to the ageing TAG engines and Honda had shown their winning hand at Williams in 1986 and 1987. The start of the alliance in 1988 had Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna as drivers and witnessed the start of the bitter though legendary Senna/Prost driver rivalry with the title going Senna’s way (his 1st championship) and McLaren being crowned the constructors’ champions.
The team’s MP4-4 car used in the 1988 season is the most dominant F1 car ever built with a winning percentage of 94%. Cut to 2015 (the 1st year of the reunion) and the MP4-30 gave the team the penultimate position in the championship (9th) with the team enduring the pain of retiring the car on 12 occasions. McLaren had added much-needed firepower to its technical team by recruiting aerodynamicist Peter Prodromou from Red Bull. Prodromou was earlier with McLaren before moving to Red Bull.
While McLaren and Honda did not bicker in public, Alonso called the Honda power unit ‘embarrassing’ and ‘a GP2 engine’ over the team radio. In private, McLaren was critical of Honda’s reluctance in employing engineers from rival engine manufacturers such as Mercedes and Ferrari and refused to take McLaren’s input on the engines. At the end of the year, Honda’s F1 engine boss Yasuhisa Arai was replaced by Yusuke Hasegawa. Yusuke was a part of Honda’s previous F1 outing in the guise of the Honda Racing F1 team and was familiar with F1.
The impact of this dismal year was telling on McLaren’s finances with the team losing out on valuable prize money (on account of finishing 9th). Long-term sponsor Tag Heuer also left at the end of the year to Red Bull.
1989 saw the FIA banning turbo engines and Honda shifted to a naturally aspirated V10 engine in the McLaren MP4-5. With Senna crowned World Champion, the team boasted a double world champion line up. McLaren Honda dominated this season by winning 10 of 16 races with the title going Prost’s way. Furthermore, McLaren won the constructors championship as well. Rivalry between Prost and Senna reached a climax though with incidents on track and bickering in the press becoming commonplace. Ron Dennis favoured Senna, (a view he held since the previous season), knowing this, Prost announced his move to Ferrari the next year halfway through the season. In 2016, for comparison it was a better year for McLaren Honda with the team finishing 6th in the championship and Honda under the control of Yusuke Hasegawa who succeeded to deliver an improved power unit. However, achieving 6th position was hardly the result the team hoped for having talked about wins during the build up to the season. Alonso finished 5th twice while Button scored a best finish of 6th. Alonso grew increasingly frustrated at the lack of race winning progress at McLaren while Button decided to retire at the end of the year though he held onto the position of reserve driver for the next year.
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2016 also saw the boardroom politics between McLaren owners Ron Dennis, Mansour Ojjeh and the Bahraini sovereign wealth fund Mumtalakat coming to the fore after a year of relative respite. Ron, who came back to the role of the CEO on the back of an agreement with Ojjeh and the Bahrainis to shore up his holding by buying their shares who could not deliver on the promise which led to a boardroom coup. Ron, in a last-minute effort to protect his interests in the team, had brought in a Chinese investor who was rejected by Ojjeh and Mumtalakat. Since Ojjeh and Mumtalakat held 75% equity and probably a similar majority on the voting rights, Ron (who held the remaining 25%) was ousted and was placed on ‘gardening leave’ until the expiry of his contract. This acrimony between the owners of McLaren is in sharp contrast to the earlier McLaren-Honda days when Ron Dennis and Mansour Ojjeh enjoyed a great personal as well as professional relationship. 2016 also saw further agony on the financial front with Exxon Mobil, the team’s fuel and lubricant partner of two decades switching to Red Bull. The McLaren-Exxon sponsorship deal was reportedly worth $30 million a year.
With Ron Dennis’ exit, a new management structure was put in place where McLaren would be governed by an executive committee led by Sheikh Mohammed from Mumtalakat and Mansour Ojjeh. Zak Brown, a marketing professional with extensive experience in the commercial (read sponsorship) side of Formula 1 was brought in as the executive director. Jost Capito who was brought in from Volkswagen by Ron Dennis was asked to leave and so was Ekrem Sami the team’s long-time head of marketing.
Honda, as detailed earlier, completed a redesign of the architecture and philosophy of their power unit while the new aero/chassis regulations gave McLaren Honda the chance to break out of the midfield to the sharp end of the grid.
The start to the season has been shaky with repeated breakdowns of the Honda power unit. The mileage covered by the team over the 2 tests has been the lowest amongst all the teams and Honda has used 6 engines in 7 days of testing already. The norm here would have been half that number. Fernando Alonso has been vocal in his criticism of Honda while McLaren racing director Eric Boullier admitted to ‘maximum strain’ in the relationship with Honda. Alonso described the cause of one of the power unit issues as ‘amateur’ indicating the level of frustration within McLaren over Honda’s issues.
While the specialist press has started talking about a divorce between McLaren and Honda, Zak Brown has denied giving any thought to this. A split may also not be financially prudent for McLaren who are getting the Honda power units for free in addition to funding from the Japanese car manufacturer. It is understood that Alonso’s $40 million/year retainer is paid by Honda. McLaren also faces a definite lack of sponsors on their car though Brown has committed to signing a title sponsor (first after Vodafone left in 2013) for the 2018 season.
In contrast to this, the 3rdyear of the earlier Honda partnership saw Senna take the championship once again and McLaren being crowned the constructors’ champions.
Where will McLaren Honda stand in the championship this year? Looking at their testing data, I’d say they will be lucky to finish where they did last year (6th). A repeat of 2015 will mean the knives will be out at the McLaren Technology Centre in Woking. Mansour Ojjeh may well place Dieter Zetsche’s number in his speed dial list by November.