Mclaren finally cut ties with Honda
British team confirm Renault partnership Alonso now likely to sign fresh contract
The ill-starred reunion between Mclaren and Honda, so attractive on paper but so atrocious in practice, finally fell apart yesterday as Formula One’s most decorated British team confirmed a three-year engine deal with Renault.
In an elaborate series of manoeuvres, which also involves Britain’s Jolyon Palmer losing his seat at Renault to Carlos Sainz Jnr, Mclaren, exasperated by the under-performance and unreliability of Honda’s power unit, finally decided to kick their Japanese suppliers into the long grass.
Crucially, the change is likely to persuade double world champion Fernando Alonso, who had threatened to walk away unless he could be provided with a competitive car, to sign a fresh contract. Sheikh Mohammed bin Essa Al Khalifa, Mclaren’s executive chairman and representative of the Bahraini royal family – who hold a 50 per cent share in the company – said: “At this point in time, it is in the best interests of both parties that we pursue our racing ambitions separately.”
It was about as diplomatic a parting shot as he could have managed. The Mclaren-honda partnership, restored in 2015 in the hope of reviving the halcyon Eighties days of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, has proved the most torturous of marriages. A team who have won 20 world titles have been reduced to feeble makeweights, ranked a distant second-last in the constructors’ championship this season, ahead of only Sauber.
Often the indignity has been too much to bear for Alonso, who this summer described his engine’s power deficit as “embarrassing”. How fitting, that his first practice session here under the Singapore night sky ended with him spluttering to a standstill once more.
The contrast in success between the two eras of Mclaren-honda tells its own story. From 1988 to 1992, Mclaren were peerless, gathering four titles in five years. But in these arid past three seasons, the record reads: ninth, sixth, ninth. Alonso, bracketed with Lewis Hamilton as one of the finest drivers of his generation, has finished no higher than sixth in 13 grands prix this season. There is an absurdity in the spectacle of such a celebrated racer, one who still harbours an ambition to win the Indianapolis 500 and Le Mans 24 Hours, being reduced to the level of a back-of-thegrid scrapper.
Mclaren’s premature exit from what should have been a decadelong relationship with Honda is an acute embarrassment for the suits in Tokyo. Losing face is intolerable in Japanese corporate culture, but Honda have at least salvaged some credibility by agreeing to power Toro Rosso, Red Bull’s sister team, in 2018. “There is a real disappointment that we have to separate,” said senior Honda executive Katsuhide Moriyama.
“We have been struggling to achieve the goals we set. We have had discussions since the start of the season about dissolving the relationship. But quitting F1 was never an option for us. Our goal next year is to fight for front three on the grid.” On the evidence of its travails of late, that target would appear ambitious to the point of fanciful.
The cost of extricating themselves seven years early from the Honda partnership will be colossal for Mclaren – up to £100million a year, according to some estimates – but the team are cushioned by the vast investment of Bahrain’s sovereign wealth fund, not to mention the 25 per cent stake of Saudi Arabia-born entrepreneur Mansour Ojjeh. Zak Brown, Mclaren’s executive director, stressed that he was confident that the tie-up with Renault could convince Alonso to commit his future to the team. “We’re going to turn our attention to Fernando right away,” he said. “In the not-too-distant future we should be able to get something done, and that should be the last big piece of the puzzle.”
For Renault driver Palmer, these falling dominoes represent the end of his F1 road. He has claimed not a single championship point in 2017, while team-mate Nico Hulkenberg has amassed 34, and Sainz’s shift from Toro Rosso is the clearest signal that he is not wanted even as a test driver. There could be further twists to the Renault saga, with Red Bull considering severing ties with the French manufacturer by 2019.
The timing of such machinations seemed ironic, given their drivers finally found an extra performance edge in the saturating humidity of Singapore. Ricciardo, who was fastest in both practice sessions yesterday, eclipsed last year’s lap record by an astonishing seven seconds, tearing through the 23 corners in a time of 1:40.852.
Singapore has been confirmed on the F1 calendar for a further four years, until 2021. Chase Carey, F1’s chief executive, said he was determined to preserve the twinkling lights of Marina Bay on the calendar. “Singapore is at the forefront of what we want our races to be – a week-long celebration,” he said. The mood in Mclaren’s corner of the paddock last night was less celebratory than relieved, as the team toasted finding a way out at last from a damaging saga.
Setting the pace: Sean Gelael of Toro Rosso leads Mclaren’s Fernando Alonso (left) during practice yesterday