SHINE ON, YOU CRAZY DIAMONDS
FOR very different reasons, two of F1’s brightest stars are hors de combat right now – out of the game.
In a perfect world, Fernando Alonso and Robert Kubica would be in the thick of it, mixing it up with Lewis and Seb, Max ’n’ Dan, pitching for the wins and titles their mighty talents demand. Both, though, are becalmed; removed from the fray. One is a victim of injury, the other helpless in the face of the technical incapacity that is the Honda F1 engine programme.
Yet there’s new hope that not one, but both of these bulls might return to the centre of the ring.
Let’s start with Alonso, still raging against his machine, still railing against the inadequacies of a Honda power unit that in Baku alone left him with penalties for component changes totalling 40 grid positions – enough,
as one observer put it, “to put him on the other side of the Caspian”. Happily, despite these travails, Alonso’s racing ame burns as strongly as Azerbaijan’s Yanar Dag ‘re mountain’ and he remains brim condent that he’s as good a driver as he’s ever been – maybe even better.
“I’ve never had a start to the season like this year in terms of how competitive I’ve felt in the car,” he said over the Baku weekend. “I never started with a difference to my team-mate like this year. Ever. I’m probably at my best, in fact, so in terms of keeping the motivation and hunger for success, despite the results, that’s okay, because you know and you feel that you are in a very good moment of driving in your career.”
All well and good, but without a car worthy of his gifts, his efforts will remain largely futile.
McLaren are acutely aware of this, of course, and while they, too, crave a power unit that is the equal of the MCL32’s chassis (described by Alonso as “very competitive in the corners”), they’re just as keen to retain the services of their hamstrung superstar.
The common solution to both these problems is for McLaren to reach agreement with Mercedes to run their standardsetting hybrid PUs in 2018. F1 Racing understands that negotiations to this end are well advanced, with talks having been held between Mansour Ojjeh – McLaren senior board member and 25 per cent shareholder – and Mercedes chairman Dietrich Zetsche.
At the time of writing, no agreement has been nalised because there are still hurdles to be cleared, not least of which are the coolness of Mercedes F1 team boss Toto Wolff towards the deal, and Honda’s reluctance to split with McLaren. Sources suggest, however, that were Honda to try to block a separation, McLaren could invoke performance clauses in their contract with Honda that they believe would allow a divorce without penalty.
Honda, meantime, told F1R: “The 2017 season has been challenging for us, with a number of reliability issues plaguing our running. We are going through a difcult time at the moment, but we are doing all we can to rectify the situation. We do not comment on media speculation regarding our ongoing relationship with McLaren and our continued relationship into 2018. We must focus on working as one team with McLaren to overcome this tough situation together.”
Some suggest that any split would be untenable for McLaren, given that Honda’s net nancial contribution as ‘works’ engine partners who also pay Alonso’s $40m annual wage, is in the region of $150m a year. But that notion overlooks the scale of long-standing Bahraini investment in McLaren. Mumtalakat, the investment arm of the Kingdom of Bahrain, own a 50 per cent stake in McLaren Group, making McLaren, in effect, a state-backed F1 team. Mumtalakat’s last publicly stated nancial position, for 2015, showed net assets of more than $10.5bn, so the idea that McLaren cannot afford to lose Honda is bogus. Of greater concern to Mumtalakat than $150m, is the reputational damage being done to the McLaren brand by an underperforming F1 team, when the road-car division is thriving. Thinking of McLaren as a ‘British Ferrari’ helps make the situation clearer.
Ojjeh recently offered F1 Racing this insight: “Racing and road cars are our DNA. We’re the only competitor that you can compare to Ferrari, in that we have road cars and a Formula 1 car. But that does mean we need success in Formula 1 to keep the story together. We can’t be bad at one and really good at the other one. The road car company is doing fantastically well. Unfortunately, right now we have an F1 engine problem that we have to solve. Everything else is great: great drivers, great team.”
Swapping Formula 1 engine suppliers would never be straightforward, regardless of any nancial entanglements between race team and manufacturer, and grafting a Mercedes F1 M08 EQ Power+ onto the back of a McLaren tub is not a guarantee of success. “How competitive we would be if we had another power unit is difcult to know,” said Alonso.
However, McLaren’s own gures indicate a power decit to Honda of 85kW. Every ten kW gain is worth around 0.25s per lap, so McLaren are currently losing 1.7-1.8s per lap at long-straight, power-critical circuits such as Montréal and Baku. Deducting 1.8s from Alonso’s Canada qualifying best of 1m 13.693s gives him a theoretical lap time of 1m 11.893s – good enough for P3 behind Lewis Hamilton and Seb Vettel.
McLaren’s engineers would want a Merc PU by “September at the latest”, according to one source, to effectively design a 2018 McLaren-Mercedes. That’s already yesterday in F1 timeframes, so expect this situation to develop quickly, not least because Alonso’s management team are actively scoping out the 2018 driver market. It’s no coincidence that Alonso’s manager Flavio Briatore and assistant Luis Garcia Abad had meetings with Toto Wolff and Renault bosses Cyril Abiteboul and Alain Prost over the Baku GP weekend.
HOPE LIES IN THE POLE
AN Alonso return to Renault is just one possibility being evaluated by the parties involved. Another – dramatically intriguing and shamelessly romantic – is that of Robert Kubica. Yes, Robert Kubica, whose F1 career was snatched away six years ago, is now t and fast enough to drive a Formula 1 car competitively. As you can read elsewhere in this issue, Kubica was given a full day’s testing in a 2012 Lotus (now Renault) E20 at Valencia’s Ricardo Tormo circuit last month. He ran 115 laps,
BAKU ALONE LEFT ALONSO WITH PENALTIES FOR COMPONENT CHANGES TOTALLING 40 GRID POSITIONS – ENOUGH, AS ONE OBSERVER PUT IT, ‘TO PUT HIM ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE CASPIAN’
comprising long and short runs, qualifying simulations and stints with high and low fuel loads.
Over the course of an emotionally charged day, he proved beyond any doubt that his driving abilities remain undiminished despite the injury sustained in a 2011 rallying accident that almost severed his right arm and brought him close to death. Before the test, which was veiled in secrecy to prevent a media frenzy, Renault had spoken of the day as being ‘the right thing to do for Robert’ and a chance for him to slay some of the demons that have haunted him these past six years.
Slay them? He banished them in a manner that will live forever with those who witnessed something very special on a sun-bleached Spanish afternoon.
“For sure my goal was not to do one test and go home,” he told us. “This test was very important for me and probably also for Renault to see what I could do and if I was able to drive the car. I don’t know what the future will bring, but I have been working hard for this and now I know that I am able to do it in a good way. Whatever the future will bring I don’t know, but I have to keep working to be ready for whatever opportunity there might be.”
Since news of his test seeped out, speculation has grown that Kubica might be offered an FP1 drive at the Italian GP and for the rest of the season. While Abiteboul quashed those rumours in Baku, his phrasing was equivocal: “There is nothing else that is planned for the time being, apart from a marketing event at Goodwood.”
Those words would do nothing to preclude the appearance of Kubica in a Renault R.S. 17 at the Hungary test scheduled for 1-2 August, right after the grand prix. Testing regulations for 2017 stipulate that two of the four allocated in-season test days must be given over to drivers who have competed in no more than two grands prix. At the rst test, over 18-19 April in Bahrain, Nico Hülkenberg drove day one; Renault’s third and reserve driver, Sergey Sirotkin, drove day two. Sirotkin must, therefore, drive one of the two Hungary test days, leaving the second open for whoever Renault prefer.
Given the ongoing difculties being experienced by Jolyon Palmer this season (only twice in eight races has he progressed beyond Q1, whereas Hülkenberg has made Q3 ve times) it would be somewhat surprising were Renault not to evaluate all available candidates for a 2018 race drive.
MY GOAL WAS NOT TO DO ONE TEST AND GO HOME. THIS TEST WAS VERY IMPORTANT FOR ME AND PROBABLY ALSO FOR RENAULT TO SEE WHAT I COULD DO AND IF I WAS ABLE TO DRIVE THE CAR. NOW I KNOW THAT I AM ABLE TO DO IT IN A GOOD WAY
No one wants to see a driver of Alonso’s calibre stuck in underperforming machinery. Least of all a disgruntled Alonso…
Alonso’s manager, Flavio Briatore, made his presence known at Baku, meeting up with representatives from Mercedes and Renault
Robert Kubica’s oneoff Renault test drive was such a resounding success that rumours of his return are now rife