This month, Joe explores the subject of divorce – Formula 1 style.
Honda and McLaren are moving inexorably towards a divorce. Will it be a messy one? No-one wants to see that happen, but that means that both sides are going to have to accept things they might not want to accept. McLaren will, no doubt, have to accept that they say nothing negative about Honda engines. Honda will have to accept that everyone is the sport is going to say that Honda couldn’t do the job.
The only way to stop that talk is to do the job properly. And one has to wonder, if that was possible why hasn’t Honda already done it. Honda does have a parachute deal with Sauber, which will mean that it will not be forced to leave the sport and can then work quietly – out of the public eye – with the Swiss team. No-one is going to pay much attention to the team at the back, and, if the engines start to work better, then Honda will get the credit for moving Sauber forwards. It’s a win-win for all concerned under in the circumstances.
But Honda is going to have swallow some of its pride and McLaren is going to have to walk away before the end of the contract – on the basis that it cannot afford to go on failing. It’s very clear that everyone at McLaren believes that Honda is responsible for the lack of performance. And, despite a great deal of patience in Woking, things have not been getting better. But mighty McLaren is now stuck between a rock and a hard place. If it stays, it gets weaker. If it leaves, it’ll have better chance of on-track success, but it’s going to cost the team a huge amount of money. And going to Mercedes (the only real choice) is a step that will virtually guarantee that McLaren cannot win a race until at least 2020. McLaren and Honda have a great history together, but it’s also clear that that was another era. Honda is not the same Honda it used to be, or, if it is, its talents are well-hidden. The good news for McLaren is that the McLaren-Mercedes brand is also a strong one – the two companies were partners from 1995 until 2014. The only real problem is that Mercedes really needs to focus on its fight with Ferrari for the World Championship, and there is always the fear that giving the engine to a credible competitor could result in what is now known as “doing a Whitmarsh” – which translates to providing engines to a rival and then being beaten by them.
Back in 2009, McLaren’s Martin Whitmarsh agreed to let Brawn Grand Prix have Mercedes engines. The Woking team had an exclusive deal with Stuttgart to use its engines and had to agree before Brawn was allowed to use them. At the time, it looked like Whitmarsh was making a generous gesture and had no worries at all about Brawn beating McLaren – but it did. Brawn used some tricky aerodynamics to create a car that was faster than all its rivals and it won the World Championship with Jenson Button, thus beginning the process that resulted in the unravelling of the McLaren-Mercedes relationship. In all probability that would not happen again, and the best that McLaren could hope for is to be running at the same sort of place as Force India and Williams (both Mercedes customers). The Mercedes team is still wary, but they can be overruled by the main company – and the signs are that they will be. Signing a deal with Mercedes would mean another lucrative engine deal for Mercedes, which would help to offset the costs of F1 – and it might even help them take points away from Ferrari. McLaren might try to push for an immediate change, which could be achieved within about three months (and perhaps shorter if the work is already taking place behind the scenes). This means that the team could switch over after the summer break, and so might be able to build up some serious points in the remaining races. These wouldn’t count towards the Constructors’ Championship itself, but they would still count in the commercial reckonings. Increasing the revenues next year and making the team much more attractive to potential sponsors is important. However, there are drawbacks to such a plan. If there is to be an engine change in 2018, it might be wiser to focus all the development on next year’s car rather than trying to build a halfway house car. Even with the existing car and a mid-season botch-up, McLaren could do well. The word is that Mercedes has done an assessment of the McLaren chassis and has concluded that it is very good, as Fernando Alonso has been saying for some time.
The other problem is the question of how to unravel the Honda relationship without things getting ugly. Both sides might, for example, try to claim that the other damaged its brand and business. Hopefully, it would not come to that. McLaren would be giving up massive revenues from Honda, and would not only have to replace that money but also pay for the new engines. The McLaren owners, led by Sheikh Mohammed bin Isa Al Khalifa, will need to commit to spending about $400 million (if necessary), or they would have to cut budgets. Having said that, keeping things as they are would likely mean the loss of talented people who have been carefully collected at Woking over a period of years, but are frustrated by not being able to win anything because of the poor engines.
The team also wants to hold on to Fernando Alonso, but may not be able to do so unless it switches engines. Having said that, McLaren may also want to cut his salary. Clearly, there’s no easy answer – but such is the world of Formula 1!
Joe Saward has been covering Formula 1 full-time for 29 years. He has not missed a race since 1988.