Much has been made of #McLaren Honda’s trials and tribulations following a disastrous pre-season, when the MCL32 repeatedly broke down during the eight days of testing in preparation for the new Formula 1 season. 2017 promised to be the year that the much-heralded reunion between McLaren and Honda finally delivered progress, though yet again the Japanese manufacturer demonstrated excessive unreliability.
Honda had even gone as far as to suggest that their '17 power unit would produce as much power as what the class-leading #Mercedes was yielding at the end of the 2016 campaign.
But for Honda, optimistic machinations and reality have yet to marry, and the fact that their new engine was generating less power than the one it ended last season with is a sad indictment of a proud company.
The lack of progress leaves McLaren in a tough predicament. Firstly, the decision to sign a 10-year deal with Honda means that any decision to back out of their arrangement will come at a financial cost. Secondly, and more importantly, a continuation of Honda’s woes will certainly trigger Fernando Alonso’s departure from McLaren.
Although the season-opening Australian Grand Prix ended with a double retirement, the form of Alonso was a timely reminder for anyone associated with McLaren that the Spaniard is arguably their most important component. The Woking outfit were expected to prop up the grid in Melbourne, so that fact that Alonso could run as high as tenth prior to retiring was utterly impressive..
At 35 years of age Alonso appears to be approaching the twilight of his career, yet his desire for a third world title shows no signs of abating. To many, Alonso – along with Lewis Hamilton – is the sport’s most complete driver, so the fact the such a talent is currently lacking the platform required to challenge the dominance of #F1’s current aristocrats – Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari – is a major shame for fans of the sport.
McLaren may be forced to decide between Honda and Alonso
And herein lies McLaren’s problem. At this moment, any trust previously placed in Honda must seriously be waning, as for all, this is Honda’s third attempt at producing a competitive power unit, one that remains underpowered and unreliable. While contractually the team may be forced to continue placing its faith in Honda, Alonso may seek pastures new when his contract expires at the end of the season.
But where does he go? Alonso confessed that there was contact with Mercedes following the shock retirement of Nico Rosberg before they opted for Valtteri Bottas.
With Bottas’ Mercedes contract valid for only one year the potential of a move to the Brackley-based squad could be back on the table later in the year, especially when Bottas initially lagged behind Hamilton in Friday practice in Australia.
However, the Finn’s improved performance over qualifying and the race showed that he could be more than a match for Hamilton once he has suitably acclimatized to the Mercedes. Coupled in with the fact that their current driver line-up provides complete harmony to the team, Toto Wolff and Niki Lauda may concur that a call to Alonso is not required. So, if there is no room at the Mercedes inn is it inconceivable to imagine that Alonso returns to Ferrari?
In the end, Alonso opted to leave the Scuderia after five seasons having conclude that they were unable to provide him with a title-challenging car, forcing him into his current quandary with McLaren. Alonso came close to claiming the title with Ferrari in both 2010 and '12, only to fall short at the final hurdle. The Maranello squad’s preliminary interpretation of F1’s new hybrid era back in 2014 left them well short of Mercedes, as they failed to score a win during the entire campaign.
But life sometimes works in mysterious ways, and while Alonso has always insisted that he would only regret leaving Ferrari if the team claim a driver’s title, he may now be looking on wide-eyed if, as many expect, the SF70-H proves to be a genuine title challenger this year in the hands of either Sebastian Vettel or Kimi Raikkonen. But while Vettel romped to an impressive victory at Albert Park, Raikkonen trailed home in fourth, unable to match the pace of his four-times world champion teammate.
The ‘Kimster’ has always been willing to play the team role during his two stints at Maranello, but despite this, you must assume that a failure to match Vettel in 2017 could coincide with the team electing for a change of driver for 2018. Ferrari certainly covet Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo, while fellow Red Bull protégé Carlos Sainz would also interest the Prancing Horse, but while Alonso continues to demonstrate that none of his inherent speed is receding it could be an inspired move for him to explore the possibility of a return to the team, whose ‘Tifosi’ fans held him in such high regard.
How poor decisions have cost Alonso
A mark of a great driver is not only his speed but also his ability to make the right decisions on – and more importantly perhaps – off the track. A key component is the ability to hold a sense of insight like the one illustrated by Michael Schumacher back in 1996, when he decided to leave a dominant Benetton team to join a Ferrari outfit languishing in the doldrums. While many took the short-sighted view, Hamilton was convinced that vacating his race-winning McLaren for the 2013 season would reap benefits after Mercedes made him aware of the foundations laid in place that have allowed them to dominate the sport for the past three years.
If there was one criticism you could throw at Alonso it could be that he has not always made the right call as far as his career is concerned. The current regulations heavily favour car manufacturers, who can provide better integration between the engine and chassis departments. While he eventually lost patience with Ferrari it was a huge call for him to ask to be released from his contract and bet on the McLaren/Honda reunion yielding a championship contending car before his previous employers. At this current moment, McLaren look a universe away from a podium, let alone any race wins or championship successes.
But why McLaren may be better off sticking with Honda
While it has been mooted by several media outlets that McLaren have held tentative discussions over a return to Mercedes, despite having to put up with such an embarrassment on a global stage, and as preposterous as it may sound, remaining with Honda may be their best bet if they truly want to return to the pinnacle of F1. No doubt, a Mercedes power unit would produce competitive results, with race wins more than likely [something that team boss Eric Boullier recently implied], but it will not deliver world championships.
In essence, that is the gold standard that has always defined the competitive nature of McLaren. Former chair Ron Dennis led the decision in 2013 for the team to forsake their Mercedes supply and persuade Honda to return to the sport, having repeatedly campaigned that the current regulations necessitate a works partnership. In other words, customer teams have no chance of a ‘Leicester City’ moment without sufficient factory backing. That is why it would make no sense for them to return to Mercedes power.
Think back to 2014. McLaren were said to have as much as 40bhp less than Mercedes despite sharing the exact engine specification. The reason? The Mercedes engine had been optimized with Petronas fuel and oil lubricants, their official partners. At that time, McLaren were using ExxonMobil counterparts. Briefly, it’s a clear indication how F1 suddenly became an engine arms race, and why Mercedes' customer teams will never mount a serious challenge to them, despite them using the standard-bearing engine.
McLaren must find a way to make it work with Honda, whether that means taking a more hands-on approach in the project or persuading Honda to alter their current methodology, with Japanese culture known for its unwillingness to seek outside help. For them, it is a sign that the project is too overwhelming, and Honda believe that they employ some of the brightest engineers’ in the world, ones who will conjure up the right antidote to their current epidemic. McLaren may have no choice but to give Honda more time to get it right, but to conjure up an alternative line from a well-known Rolling Stones song, time is not on Alonso’s side.
The next contract that Alonso signs will surely be his last, which is why he must attempt to ensure that the project he elects for can reap immediate rewards. Realistically speaking only, the ‘big three’ will expect to be fighting for championships in the coming years, and Alonso must do everything in his power to get himself in one of those coveted cars. But having discussed Mercedes’ current plight and Red Bull’s propensity for promoting from within, Ferrari is perhaps Alonso’s best option.
There was certainly tension between himself and former team principal Marco Mattiacci towards the end of his time with the team, with many suggesting that Alonso’s tendency for openly criticising the team had taken its toll on management. But when you perceive yourself as one of the best drivers on the grid it is easy to buckle under frustration, you only should look at Vettel at times during last year to know that.
Given all of McLaren’s troubles during the last few seasons it’s interesting to remember that Ferrari has won fewer grand prix than them since 2010. CEO Sergio Marchionne will be all too aware that the most important thing for Ferrari is for them to maximize its possibilities of winning races and championships, and if a talent such as Alonso becomes available then it is something the team must surely consider. For Alonso, a return to familiar surroundings may just be the final tonic his career requires if his dream of a third world title doesn’t completely fall by the wayside. #Formula 1