Mclaren fi­nally cut ties with Honda

Bri­tish team con­firm Re­nault part­ner­ship Alonso now likely to sign fresh con­tract

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Singapore Grand Prix - By Oliver Brown in Sin­ga­pore

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

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