By Adam Tate, Associate Editor
According to a report from the BBC, McLaren has contacted Mercedes about an engine supply deal. Which means it is already looking at other partners after numerous failures in preseason testing with current supplier Honda.
Despite an improvement to sixth in the constructor’s championship in 2016, and an optimistic re-branding in the off season, McLaren is set to begin the new season at the back of the pack. Honda which maintained it could find a fix for the problems encountered during testing and have it ready in time for the season opening Australian Grand Prix is already downplaying their chances in a last minute move to manage expectations.
Expectations that for now are decidedly poor. Fernando Alonso made all aware of just dire the situation is when he berated Honda at a press session last week. He let the cat out of the bag that the 2017 Honda power unit is down on horsepower from 2016, he bemoaned the amateurish mistakes and that the MCL32 is woefully slow on the straights compared to the opposition.
Though Zak Brown and Eric Boullier are still towing the line and keeping on a brave face, the facade is beginning to crack. Boullier in particular stepped in it when he claimed that McLaren could win races with a Mercedes engine, while he was speaking with Spanish newspaper AS last week.
The prevailing feeling is that Honda can not or at least will not develop a winning power unit in time to keep McLaren happy, let alone keep Alonso on board after his contract expires at the end of the year.
Abandoning the Honda deal, which was signed back in 2013, will prove very costly for McLaren. Honda supplies their power units for free, gives Woking considerable sponsorship money, and pays 50 percent of the driver salaries, with the lion’s share going to Alonso. Crawling back to Mercedes, hat in hand will cost them $17 million up front and be a psychological blow as well.
After a very strong 15 season relationship as Mercedes main outfit, McLaren had three drivers’ championships and one constructors’ championship to show for it. It was a successful, but increasingly frustrated relationship as the combo often played second fiddle to the likes of Ferrari and then Red Bull. Mercedes continued to supply McLaren with engines through the 2014 season, but from 2010 on their focus was the factory outfit that became an all conquering juggernaut when the 2014 power units came into the sport.
Recently ousted former chairman Ron Dennis only went to Honda because he believed a modern Formula One team cannot win championships with a customer engine. Despite Red Bull’s success with Renault, he and the top brass in Woking felt an exclusive partnership with a top line manufacturer was the way to go. A new formula was on the way, and romantic images of their glorious past with Honda gave their fans goosebumps of a perceived greatness to come.
Neither Mercedes or McLaren have publicly commented on the news, and neither are likely to in the short term. Honda has officially been put on notice and the relationship will be walking on egg shells come qualifying in Albert Park.
Are we seeing the end of a failed reunion? Is McLaren set for a messy divorce from Honda and then endure lean times like they did in the mid nineties? Will the partnership come good and work out? I doubt it.
McLaren is already making the right step by reaching out to Mercedes, as their former partners are the best bet to right this ship. Renault will not want to supply engines to a team capable of beating them like Red Bull clearly has for years. Ferrari would almost quit the sport before being forced into helping their fallen rivals.
For the short term, it is Mercedes or bust. For the long term, McLaren’s best chance is to invest money from their successful road car side of the house into developing their own power units, but that will be a very expensive, very hard road.