Although neither Mercedes or McLaren made any comment on the rumours, it has been confirmed today that McLaren has made an exploratory approach to their former engine supply about potentially returning to Mercedes engines in the future.
McLaren have been seen to be exploring their options after another disappointing pre-season test with current engine suppliers Honda. It was revealed after the first day of testing that there was a design flaw in the oil tank of the new Honda engine and Honda have been unable to confirm that a fix, for this and all the other issues the engine has, will be available before the Australian Grand Prix.
The Honda engine went under a complete redesign during the winter as the engine token system has been removed from Formula One. This meant that there were no restrictions for any teams for how much they wished to change their engines before the 2017 season. McLaren had been hoping that Honda could provide a decent engine so that they could make a noticeable step up the field with the aid of the radical new aerodynamic regulations for this season. Unfortunately, once again, the Honda engine is unreliable and uncompetitive.
McLaren racing director, Eric Boullier, stated at the end of the pre-season testing that there was “no plan at all” to end the McLaren-Honda relationship but it has been disclosed that McLaren is looking at other options in case they cannot make the relationship with Honda work. After three years of unreliable and uncompetitive engines, it is no surprise that McLaren has started looking for another solution to their problem. The first year of the McLaren-Honda reunion in 2015 was a disaster for the team and from early signs, it looks like the 2017 season could be just as painful.
A switch from Honda would require McLaren to buy out of their current multi-year contract with Honda that was signed in 2013. Although the contact between McLaren and Mercedes has been described as “informal and brief” it did not stop Mercedes motorsport boss Toto Wolff to say, on behalf of te Mercedes board and himself, that Mercedes are open-minded about supplying McLaren with engines again.
A change to a customer team, by taking Mercedes or even Renault engines for the forthcoming seasons, could have huge consequences for McLaren. The Honda engine deal is worth close to a net $100 million annually to the team. If they were to become a customer team again, the change could cost McLaren £14.8 million annually.
Not only could the engine cost become more expensive, Honda is also responsible for paying half of the driver-salary bill and a significant amount of money in sponsorship bills. A step away from Honda could be highly costly for McLaren. The real question for the Woking-based team must be if the money they would lose stepping away from Honda could be found elsewhere in terms of new sponsorship for the team if the car was competitive and fighting at the front of the field.
It is no secret that Mercedes has managed to produced the best engine of the V6-turbo era, but the risk of success would still be the same. Back in 2014, when McLaren was running the Mercedes-dominant engine, the team could only manage fourth in the constructors and two podium finishes with no wins. It is clear that, during the V6-turbo era, 2014 was McLaren’s most successful year, but even then the Woking team struggled to secure sponsorship. The worst thing McLaren could do at this time would be to return to Mercedes and be unable to have a title sponsor and still not be able to produce the success that has evaded them since 2013. The financial ramifications could potentially be too much for the team to continue in the sport.
The main reason that Ron Dennis gave for leaving the Mercedes deal in 2014 was that he believed the only way to beat Mercedes in the new era of cars was to be an official factory partner of a major engine manufacturer. It was the same sentiment that Fernando Alonso used to explain why he moved to McLaren in 2015. But it is clear that McLaren is losing hope in Honda to ever produce an engine to help them prove the sentiment that fueled the contract to be signed in the first place.
At the end of pre-season testing, McLaren was the team to set the lowest amount of laps and their fastest lap was 2.7 seconds off the pace of pace-setters Ferrari. The only team McLaren were faster than was Sauber, who are running 2016 Ferrari engines. Compared to Mercedes 1096 laps set, a total distance of 5102km and around 16 race distances, McLaren set a measly 425 laps over eight days, a total distance of 1978km. It is assumed that, due to the amount of time they spent in the garage, McLaren lost around half of the pre-season testing days.
In another knock to Honda, Boullier stated in an interview with Spain’s AS newspaper that he believed if McLaren had a Mercedes engine in the car this year it could be competitive enough to win. After the progress it looked like Honda had made last year it feels like they have taken ten steps backward and started back at the bottom with this year’s engine. A fundamental flaw in the oil tank has really brought into light how out of depth Honda seem to be. If something as simple as the oil tank can be made completely wrong then how is anyone supposed to see Honda as a front-running engine?
The other risk McLaren must take into consideration is the contract of their star driver Fernando Alonso. The two-time World Champion’s contract runs out at the end of this year and with the state of the car at the moment it is implausible to think the Spaniard will sign an extension to his contract. Alonso has already publically expressed interest in the World Endurance Championship and racing in LMP1 with Porsche. Alonso has been in search of his third world title since 2007 and has missed out narrowly on many occasions. If Honda and/or McLaren cannot sort the car out so it can be competitive there is a high chance the Formula One grid will not feature Alonso next year.
Boullier said: “He wants to be competitive because he has talent to show the world and to himself. And we need to be competitive to keep him happy. If we’re competitive he’ll be happy and if not he’ll take his own decisions.”
McLaren needs to analyse their situation thoroughly. There are heavy financial ramifications for buying out of their Honda contract, but if they can keep Fernando Alonso, return the McLaren back to the front of the grid, and obtain a big new title sponsor, then is it a financial risk they should be willing to take? In their first year back into the sport with the big regulation change, Honda’s sloppy engine could have been forgiven. But three years into the project the engine development should be mature enough for the fundamentals to not let the team down. It is clear that McLaren, and their fans, believe Honda’s input is just not good enough.