McLaren's philosophy stops working
Three years after McLaren said they could only win as a 'works team', the team's dramatic reversal seemingly signals that a divorce is imminent
By Pete Gill
Last Updated: 08/06/17 4:15pm
"Do I think you can win with a customer engine? I think you can."
In an interview replete with a series of headline-grabbing soundbites, any one of which would justify the conclusion that McLaren are on the brink of divorcing Honda, those four words, "I think you can", by McLaren executive director Zak Brown are surely the most significant and far-reaching.
Brown's interview is, by any measure, extraordinary. Again and again, the McLaren boss lays bare the depth of the team's frustration and loss of faith with scathing condemnation. For Honda, any of the withering criticisms - "They seem a bit lost...we can't sit around forever…they are struggling to get it to come together" - would be damaging.
Taken together, the cumulative effect is devastating. And these things aren't just said by accident.
"Our preference is to win the world championship with Honda," says Brown. "But at some point you need to make a decision as to whether that's achievable. And we have serious concerns."
But it's Brown's verdict that an F1 team can win in the sport's engine-centric current era without being a 'works' outfit which gives the criticism such crushing weight. With four words, Brown has stripped away the fundamental justification underpinning McLaren's partnership with Honda.
Rewind to October 2014 and Ron Dennis, the then boss of McLaren, was adamant that what Brown now believes is possible was actually impossible.
"No grand prix team is going to win a World Championship in the future unless it is the dominant recipient of an engine manufacturer's efforts," Dennis told Sky F1 at Suzuka.
"It's really not having access to the source code that allows you to both harness and harvest the energy-recovery systems and that's crucial for getting a well-balanced car."
It was a judgement and philosophy which drove McLaren to divorce Mercedes, their previous engine suppliers, and reunite with Honda in an exclusive partnership.
Dennis' conviction - and by extension McLaren's - was absolute and so deeply entrenched that there could be no deviation in thought or direction no matter how extensive the evidence that, simply put, being a 'works team' wasn't working.
"I can't understand why everybody doesn't appreciate the simple fact that you aren't going to win a world championship if you have a second-string engine - it's just not going to happen," said an exasperated Dennis in September 2015 just days after Fernando Alonso had branded the team's performance in the Japanese GP as "embarrassing" and compared Honda's power unit to a "GP2 engine".
"This very acute pain we have inflicted on ourselves is the fastest way for us to get back to where we need to get to," added the McLaren chief.
And so McLaren resolutely continued with Honda, absolutely committed to the partnership and the cause of the partnership, all the way through the further misery of 2015, another podium-less season in 2016, and into a 2017 campaign which has so far failed to elicit a single point.
So what has changed?
The cynical response would be that McLaren's philosophy change has been forced upon them by the woeful wretchedness of their partner's work. And those cynics would seemingly have a point.
As Alonso put it in winter testing, "We have only one problem which is the power unit. There is no reliability and there is no power."
Were F1 simply a car formula, McLaren believe they would be challenging Ferrari and Mercedes for the title. Instead they are separated in the constructors' standings by the small matter of two hundred points. That's the sort of chasm which is likely to produce all manner of reversals.
"The executive committee have now given us our marching orders," said Brown. "We're not going to go into another year like this, in hope."
Inevitably, the finances are talking too. Honda are reckoned to provide McLaren with up to $100m annually. But according to Brown, "when you actually look at the impact of loss of FOM money and loss of sponsorship, it starts to diminish the commercial benefits of what Honda brings to the table. And when you start to net it out, it doesn't have quite the commercial benefit it might appear from the outside."
Honda's deal with Sauber for 2018 means a divorce from McLaren wouldn't automatically trigger their exclusion from the sport, and both Brown and McLaren's new board of decision-makers can legitimately point out that they were not party to the team's original rationale to partner Honda. It was a decision ultimately made by Dennis and Martin Whitmarsh, both of whom have long since departed Woking.
McLaren's fear now must be that it won't just be Alonso departing Woking this year unless they can provide compelling reason to stay. Carrying on in hope won't do. The change in philosophy has become a necessity.
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