How low can they possibly go?
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
THE SADNESS HERE IS THAT HIS LOSS IS OUR LOSS: FORMULA 1 IS DIMINISHED BY THE LACK OF FERNANDO ON POLE, WINNING RACES
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 innite 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 condent 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”