Why two Spaniards have become key to McLaren’s Formula 1 future
After a disappointing partnership with Honda, McLaren’s new deal with Renault should be more prosperous, writes Luke Barry.
Reunions don’t always work. What was once a match made in heaven may not be decades later. Factors change. The times change. And it seems as if the romance of McLaren and Honda rekindling their previously dominant partnership will never have the fairy-tale ending many would have dreamed of.
Back in the 1980s, McLaren-Honda weren’t just the best team in Formula 1, they were streets ahead of the rest. With titans Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost behind the wheel, the team only failed to win one race during the 1988 season at Monza, Italy, such was their dominance.
The chance to revitalise this successful coalition was too hard to resist for both parties in 2014. With McLaren’s long-term partnership with Mercedes-Benz coming to an end, Honda decided to build its own F1 power unit and joined McLaren as a works partner in 2015, making engines exclusively for the Woking based team.
This was enough to entice 2005 and 2006 World Champion Fernando Alonso back to the team he famously fell out with in 2007, the Spaniard linking up with the experienced Jenson Button. Alonso used to have a go-kart in the shape of Senna’s McLaren-Honda when he was a small boy; it was the stuff of dreams. As it turned out, Honda may have lured Alonso back to the team, but it could yet have driven him away.
Over two and a half seasons, the partnership has amassed just 114 points with a best result of fifth overall. To put that into context, Mercedes have racked up 1481 points in that time, well over ten-times as many in just two and a half years, and have won both drivers and constructors’ titles in 2015 and 2016.
Alonso has publicly been critical of the team on several occasions. Honda’s power unit is a long way off the performance of Mercedes’, making it improbable for Alonso and team mate Stoffel Vandoorne to have strong race weekends with such a lack of power. Even more frustratingly, the team have gone backwards from where they were last year.
Something had to change, so in a domino set of switches, McLaren have signed a deal with Renault to run their power units from 2018 onwards, with Toro Rosso switching to Honda, thus freeing up the second customer Renault engine. The French firm had previously stated they were unwilling to provide for more than three teams, with their engines already in the back of their factory team, Red Bull and Toro Rosso.
Carlos Sainz Jr, son of double World Rally Champion namesake, has been used as bait in the deal. The young Spaniard will move to Renault in 2018 to partner Nico Hulkenberg, and could yet be racing in yellow as soon as the Malaysian Grand Prix if the team decides to not continue with the struggling Jolyon Palmer. Pierre Gasly is expected to be promoted to Formula with Toro Rosso should this happen.
So where does this leave McLaren? Vandoorne will remain with the team as it teams up with Renault for the first time in its illustrious history, but will Alonso stay?
The double champion has been linked with various drives within and outwith Formula 1, with his desire to win the ‘triple crown’ (Formula 1 World Championship, 24 Hours of Le Mans, Indy 500) as strong as ever as he enters the autumn of his career. But his desire to win a third F1 title he feels he deserves is arguably stronger, and it’s hard to see a better place for him to do so than McLaren.
Ferrari have signed Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen for next year at the very least, with Lewis Hamilton tied down at Mercedes with Valtteri Bottas recently extending his deal too.
Alonso’s two Formula 1 world titles came with Renault, and the team reckon the performance it is currently haemorrhaging is down to the engine and not their chassis.
We will no doubt find out soon, but a new and hopefully prosperous chapter is about to begin, and it’s called McLaren-Renault.