SHINE ON, YOU CRAZY DI­A­MONDS

F1 Racing - - INSIDER - AN­THONY ROWLINSON @Rowl­in­son_F1

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 condent 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 difcult 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 difcult to know,” said Alonso.

How­ever, McLaren’s own gures in­di­cate a power decit 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 difcul­ties 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

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