As the pre-season testing ended at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya on 10 March, there was a wild sense of anticipation about the new Formula One (F1) season starting with the first race in Australia on 26 March. With their innovative new car, and aided in large part by rule changes once again, Ferrari are expected to challenge Mercedes AMG strongly this season.
While the frenzied media attending this test session compared the time-sheets of Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton to get a sense of the impending rivalry, Spain’s Fernando Alonso held a press conference at the McLaren-Honda motorhome.
“We are 30-40 kmph down in every single straight (of the circuit),” said Alonso, reflecting on what’s already ailing McLaren’s new car MCL32.
Honda were forced to use up as many as four engines in the first test itself, losing power due to oil pump and electrical issues. They persisted until the second test, with 11 laps being the longest stint done by the car. In this second test, when other teams were busy ironing out their problems, McLaren covered only 1,978km—compared to Mercedes’ 5,101km and Ferrari’s 4,445km.
Over the two tests, McLaren managed a total of only one-third of the mileage raked up by Mercedes. “We have only one problem, which is Honda. There is no reliability and there is no power,” added Alonso, heaping criticism on Honda’s 2017 engines.
Since F1 in 2015, the McLaren-Honda partnership has not worked out well. It was the grand reforging of the team that had experienced its most successful period in F1 in the 1980s, with Alain Prost and the late Ayrton Senna behind the wheel.
When the McLaren-Honda deal was signed in 2014, then team principal Ron Dennis said developing a new power unit from scratch with Honda was the best option to beat Mercedes, which had been flying since it got the 1.6 litre turbo-charged engines in 2014. The results, though, have not been impressive.
Honda’s results in the competition a year later, in 2015, were poor. Jenson Button finished last in the season’s first race in Australia that year; race-winner Hamilton’s Mercedes lapped him twice. McLaren finished the season an embarrassing ninth in the constructors’ standings, just above the poorly rated (and now defunct) Marussia team.
In 2015, Alonso retired from seven out of 19 races (he didn’t race in Australia owing to concussion sustained during a crash in pre-season testing. His replacement Kevin Magnussen didn’t start either due to engine failure). Alonso’s then teammate, Jenson Button, retired in five races and didn’t start in the Bahrain Grand Prix.
A disappointed McLaren ignored the travails of this first season, deeming it a learning curve. The 2016 season marked some progress—McLaren still finished a lowly eight in the constructors’ standings but garnered 76 points in comparison to 27 in 2015. There were only nine retirements between Alonso-Button, compared to 13 the previous year.
In the fast-paced world of F1, this was slow progress, but still a forward curve. This is why Honda’s current problems—lack of power and reliability—are an indictment of its failure to adapt to the sport.
There is talk now of a split between McLaren and Honda. They have a long-term contract, until 2024, but either party can choose to walk away owing to performance-based clauses in their agreement. A Spanish newspaper set off this speculation, wondering if McLaren would be willing to drop Honda even before the season-opener. That’s unlikely, however.
Every team designs its chassis around the engine, and even if they do part ways, there isn’t enough time for McLaren to get a new power unit before Australia and redesign their car. If they do manage it over the course of this season, McLaren will have to relinquish any points they garner with Honda. They will lose all the sponsorship money the Japanese giants bring, including paying Alonso’s annual £32 million (around Rs259 crore) salary.
So where does this leave the two-time (2005, 2006) F1 champion?
Alonso moved on from Ferrari in 2015, after failing to win a title in five years (2010-14). He had coveted a seat at Mercedes, even Red Bull, but both failed to materialize. He finally took a punt on McLaren, which entered into this partnership with Honda.
It was a shocking move—and an indication of the extent he is willing to go for another title—given his acrimonious parting with McLaren and fallout with Dennis in 2007; the two swore to never work together again.
At age 35 though, Alonso is starting to run out of time if he wants to add to his two drivers’ titles. When 2016 champion Nico Rosberg quit F1 in December, the Spaniard was linked with a move to Mercedes to partner Hamilton. But that didn’t materialize owing to a watertight contract with McLaren-Honda.
Now with McLaren struggling, his best bet is to see if Mercedes want to replace Valtteri Bottas for 2018, a long shot.
Or, will he call time on his F1 career now? “I will not stop racing without a good result and one I deserve,” says the ever-dogged Alonso.
Chetan Narula is the author of History Of Formula One: The Circus Comes To India.