Can McLaren and Honda get back to winning ways in F1 in the near future?

11 March 2017

Well the title says it all; can McLaren and Honda get back to winning ways in Formula One in the near future?

I believe as fan (and also a big McLaren fan myself) that they can; make no illusions it will be an extremely long process for them to achieve it but it is not unachievable and allow me to expand further.

When McLaren and Honda reignited their partnership back in 2015, many fans such as myself were dreaming of the days of the 1980’s and 1990’s when both parties dominated Formula One with two of the greatest drivers on the grid in Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost.

But we knew that wouldn’t happen straight away and we’d have to deal with some pain in the process but in the future the thought of that success in the current era of Formula One was mouth-watering.

But fast-forward two years and things have progressed; but not in the manner everyone would have liked. With two hard seasons behind them that included endless issues with the power unit, the oil tanks and also Fernando Alonso damning critique of the Honda engine on several occasions (the most famous being at Honda’s home race at the Japanese GP in 2015 calling the power unit a “GP2 engine” on team radio); it is clear that things aren’t rosy in the partnership at all.

This season sees an apparently flawed design for the oil tank and other mechanical niggles that have seen the new MCL32 stranded in the garage more often than not during the opening Formula 1 test, I am not surprised by that; I’m just frustrated.

Honda has once again introduced wide-ranging changes to their engine design as it tries to make up for the year or more of development it has to make up to their rivals. Even Honda engine boss Yusuke Hasegawa said in the days building up to the Barcelona test that these changes are only targeting the performance figures of last year’s Mercedes. So you can argue that they are not really making any ground into that time gap at all.

Now it seems the scale of the task that the McLaren team and Honda set out to achieve is simply too great. With the technology of the current hybrid power units being so new and with so much scope for development and improvement that while Honda may make bigger gains season on season, the goalposts they are aiming for just get shifted further away as their rivals also develop and improve.

That is why at the moment, I feel that McLaren’s aim to make the top three into a top four with Honda is currently unattainable but could be achievable in the future; provided that both parties continue with the passion, commitment and determination to see this through to the end.

As I have mentioned previously, Fernando Alonso has been publically critical of the Honda engine and you can understand why he’s doing it. What may have not been clear from the headlines that have emerged over the F1 test period is that there were two sides to Alonso’s media session grilling over the progress they have made so far from 2016.

In one session, Alonso hailed the more ‘adult’ regulations and his balanced car, only to pull it back to the fact he can’t capitalise on it because of his engine as follows:-

“Now we can drive flat out, the way we like,” Alonso said. “Not like little kids to keep the tyres alive, to prevent strange things from happening, etc. That’s the best way to feel a Formula One car, so it’s fun to be free to attack. All that is missing is going down the straight.”

In fact, the Spanish media whipped up a bit of a frenzy last week by (somewhat inevitably) suggesting McLaren will dump Honda if it doesn’t pull its act together, drawing a few groans but also planting the seeds of interest that don’t help either party to progress and move forward.

I completely understand many fans when they say that Alonso took it on faith that a company as good as Honda could get it right, yet it has been shown they can’t and he’s just frustrated that he cannot show everyone why he’s a two time world champion which could make him leave the sport as a result to seek a competitive drive in another motorsport series.

To flip the coin however, Alonso’s comments do not look good for any potential customers or teams that may want to invest themselves in a power unit in the sport. By publically critiquing the engine in the manner than he has previously; this could do more harm than good for both parties but also for himself as a driver and once again you could argue that Alonso hasn’t changed at all from his early McLaren days in 2007.

The question I suppose I’ve been asking myself as an McLaren fan is if McLaren are really in it with Honda for the long haul, (which they seem keen to emphasise publically that they are) then they must start considering the 2020 season. Why you ask?

With negotiations on potential changes to the power units set to start with F1’s new owners for that year, the team and Honda would be wise to try and get a jump start. And that is what the Mercedes team did when they rejoined as a works team by putting their focus on a long-term goal even if it results in short-term pain.

To date, McLaren has gone to great lengths to emphasise it is in it for the long haul and it is naïve to think it could simply change engine so simply. I would forgive you if you were in the camp of thinking that it is easy to assume Honda is merely the supplier in this partnership.

In fact, it is more than just the partner too. Honda is essentially the foundation and the finance for the majority of McLaren’s F1 effort. In short, Honda is a vast majority of McLaren F1.

McLaren has always spoken in long terms with regards to their partnership with Honda but you don’t need to read too far between the lines to realise there is genuine upset at the latest setbacks, not least because it appears to be the same problems reoccurring.

For me as a McLaren fan, what is happening at the moment has to be an awful embarrassment for Honda and the repercussions of that will be felt keenly back in Sakura and also in Woking. It won’t have escaped its notice that its primary core values for performance and reliability on its road cars are precisely the traits being betrayed by its F1 effort.

You could argue that it is increasingly clear that McLaren are losing patience as it gently steps away from the ‘unified’ image that they emphasises to join fans in raising the finger of responsibility and pointing directly at Honda. But should they be doing this? I don’t think they should be as both parties have the experience and expertise needed to get back to competitive ways; it will just take longer than they thought that’s all.

Many fans have asked me via social media over the past few weeks could Honda leave Formula One. And I’ll ask you the same question, take a minute and think about that.

The answer to that question is they can’t, there is too much for Honda and also McLaren to lose now. Well they have done that at the end of the 2008 season you may ask and it is not a sight that McLaren and their fans would want to see either. Never mind the amount of investment, resources and capital that both parties have brought to get to the level that they are now.

For Honda to truly succeed in the present era of Formula One; they cannot be half committed to Formula One and I don’t think that they are. I believe that Honda are desperate to win, I believe McLaren are desperate to win and more importantly McLaren fans want them to win and if that means more resources and investment to achieve that aim, then you can bet your bottom dollar that they will do whatever it takes to reach the ultimate pinnacle of Formula One; winning races and championships once again in the near future but on their own terms and conditions.

Sarah Jones- @jonesy_laaa