How low can they pos­si­bly go?

F1 Racing - - INSIDER - AN­THONY ROWL­IN­SON @Rowl­in­son_F1

This was the un­for­tu­nate, lin­ger­ing thought af­ter watch­ing the rst two cap­ti­vat­ing days of 2017 For­mula 1 test­ing at Barcelona and, for once, it had noth­ing to do with some un­speak­able mo­ment of skull­dug­gery en­acted by a prac­ti­tioner of pad­dock dark arts.

No. This re­gret­table ob­ser­va­tion arose dur­ing the lunchtime break from track ac­tion on day one of the rst Barcelona test. Fer­nando Alonso’s MCL32, re­splen­dent in its ‘orange-is-the-new-black’ liv­ery, had been largely be­calmed, owing to an oil tank de­sign aw, and The Great Fer­nando re­stricted to a sin­gle in­stal­la­tion lap. In to­tal he clocked only 29 tours that day, while Se­bas­tian Vet­tel, sec­ond fastest for Fer­rari, clocked 99 more.

“We have only four days for each driver be­fore the world cham­pi­onship starts – and now one is gone for me,” he said. His heavy ex­pres­sion and the de­fen­sive mood within the team said more than any sani­tised sound­bite. Yet again, he knew, it was go­ing to be a very


long sea­son and, in the late hours of his rac­ing prime, he has no time to waste.

Grumpily, he apol­o­gised to fans the world over for the sub­stan­dard spec­ta­cle F1 has of­fered in re­cent years, be­fore dwelling on his in­vid­i­ous po­si­tion at be­ing de­liv­ered a third un­der­per­form­ing McLaren-Honda.

“We are dis­ap­pointed; we are sad to not be able to run. We are aware of the time we lost. No one is happy to lose a day and no one is hid­ing their frus­tra­tion. There’s an innite amount of things to test and we couldn’t do it.”

Who could blame Alonso for his dis­gruntle­ment? He’s one of the two great­est driv­ers of his gen­er­a­tion and as his own clock ticks in­ex­orably to­ward the late 30s (he’ll turn 36 this July), he will see another year squan­dered.

The rea­sons for this in­iq­ui­tous sit­u­a­tion are mul­ti­ple and com­plex; some cer­tainly re­late to Alonso’s own char­ac­ter traits and the scorched-earth pol­icy he has ap­plied in the past to in-team re­la­tions. It’s that very re that has al­ways made him such a fe­ro­cious com­peti­tor on track. But the sad­ness here is that his loss is our loss: For­mula 1 is di­min­ished by the lack of Fer­nando on pole, win­ning races. Alonso-McLaren-Honda should be a com­pet­i­tive match for Hamil­ton-Mercedes, Vet­tel-Fer­rari and Ric­cia­rdo-Red Bull-Re­nault.

In­stead he’ll ap­proach Mel­bourne not know­ing even if the McLaren-Honda part­ner­ship is sus­tain­able. Dark March ru­mours sug­gested that break-up sce­nar­ios had al­ready been eval­u­ated at the McLaren Tech­nol­ogy Cen­tre, and while the prospect of McLaren los­ing an en­gine parter who con­trib­ute a net $100m to the team’s an­nual bud­get (via free en­gines, driver salary pay­ments and straight fund­ing) is al­most un­con­scionable, how much more strain can this trou­bled mar­riage en­dure?

Year one, 2015, was a write-off; Honda ad­mit­ted they’d have been wiser to de­lay their en­try and de­velop their power unit to a higher state of readi­ness be­hind closed doors. Last year was bet­ter, although with best re­sults of two fth places, it could hardly be de­scribed as stel­lar. Sixth in the con­struc­tors’ ta­ble, 62 points be­hind fth­placed Williams, is the F1 wilder­ness for a team with such ex­plicit ti­tle-win­ning in­tent.

Of great­est con­cern was the ad­mis­sion by Honda’s F1 chief Yusuke Hasegawa that the na­ture of their day-two prob­lems (which re­stricted Stof­fel Van­doorne to just 40 laps) wasn’t fully un­der­stood, as they strug­gled to get to grips with an all-new de­sign that copies Mercedes’ split­tur­bine ap­proach. At least ve en­gines were used dur­ing week one. “The me­chan­i­cal is­sue, I don’t know enough yet to be condent about that,” Hasegawa said. “Of course I worry about it. In the tests we need to over­come a lot of trou­ble. So some­times we need to ar­gue or we need to have con­struc­tive dis­cus­sion, but I think we are do­ing a very good job and we have a very good re­la­tion­ship.”

The sign­ing of Honda to re­place Mercedes at the end of 2014 was the last great strate­gic play made by ex-CEO Ron Dennis, and the no­tion of McLaren and their Japanese al­lies re­cap­tur­ing past glo­ries seemed as prag­matic as it was ro­man­tic. Sure, the chal­lenge of pro­duc­ing a com­pet­i­tive hy­brid PU was stiff, but if any car man­u­fac­turer would be equal to the task, mighty Honda – maker of more en­gines per an­num than any other com­pany – would be that con­cern. Wouldn’t they?

McLaren and a very glum Fer­nando Alonso lost out on most of the first day’s test­ing, af­ter all-toofa­mil­iar power-unit woes

Honda ‘s Yusuke Hasegawa is baf­fled: “The me­chan­i­cal is­sue, I don’t know enough yet to be con­fi­dent about”

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