The case for the defence of McLaren

After three seasons spent supposedly enduring the woes bestowed upon them by Honda, McLaren’s switch to Renault has, so far, yielded only modest results, especially considering how much of a rollicking their former engine partners were given. But does that truly serve to disprove the blame that McLaren put on Honda for their collective failures?

If you watch the behind-the-scenes Amazon documentary ‘Grand Prix Driver’ then it very much paints the picture of a team – little more than twelve months ago – that doesn’t fully have its house in order; parts were delayed that meant that Formula One’s second most successful team would launch with a car that would later be on the plane to test in Barcelona – not exactly the status quo for a team of that size. Besides that, there were hiccups in getting the engine to remotely fire up, Fernando Alonso’s future was up in the air, whilst the MCL32 was unreliable and a handful to drive in winter testing. Generally speaking, it gives off a strong sense of what McLaren has been for the last 4 years or so: a once great team in disarray.

Obviously one can point at current results and say with the most assured certainty that any assertion that the car at the back end of 2017 was one of the best on the grid is – and probably was at the time – a load of old rubbish.

However, that is to discount the amount of work that would be required to change engine suppliers in the amount of time that McLaren were given. Granted, that issue was wholly self-inflicted given how much they seemed to delay any announcement on the subject, but still the matter of the fact remains.

As such, there should surely be some kind of ‘grace period’ wherein the Woking-based team cannot be expected to produce their best results. Couple to that the fact that the Renault engine isn’t a massive improvement on the Honda – mostly in terms of reliability – and the potential for improvement wouldn’t reasonably put McLaren on course to legitimately challenge Mercedes and Ferrari for wins; Red Bull, absolutely, but it’s obvious the deficit between the leading power units and those powering Red Bull and McLaren, most notably in qualifying.

In terms of the design process, the Renault is markedly different from the Honda in terms of its architecture, and will inevitably have different pick-up points, whilst the aero department at the MTC wouldn’t have been quite so ‘in-the-loop’ as they were in partnership with the Japanese marque; all of which adds up to a not insignificant hurdle to overcome. Moreover, how do you find – totally willy-nilly – the rumoured £100 million investment from Honda? While it’s easy to get lost in the overload of numbers in the world of F1, that’s about a third of the budget you’d need to win the world championship these days – McLaren might be a huge company, but even that isn’t small change.

As much as reminiscing about ‘Grand Prix Driver’ is revealing about the state of disorganisation and strife that McLaren found themselves in, both as a result of the failings of Honda and their own, it could arguably be misleading. I mean, it was only a one-off, right?

Not necessarily, because the fact that the new nose introduced at last weekend’s Spanish Grand Prix had difficulties passing the FIA-mandated crash tests would suggest otherwise. On top of that, the self-evident reliability issues and lost track time in pre-season wouldn’t have helped the engineers assess the new power unit, again painting the picture of a team biting off more than it could chew.

That being said, less than three months on from winter testing and that particular bridge has long since had water beneath it; the whole affair now amounts to nothing more than minor teething troubles, in hindsight

Instead, what we are now left with is a car that is reasonably solid – despite not meeting the lofty expectations of some spectators – with a new nose, and new philosophy of guiding air around the front, to the bargeboards, floor and diffuser – so the improvement will almost certainly come, it’s just that the rest of the car needs to be optimised to get the most out of the change. Naturally, any added downforce will be welcome effect for both Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne, and eventually will help alleviate the problem of carrying too much drag, when slightly more aerodynamic efficiency can be clawed back to boost its straight line speed.

So while there are certainly positives to take from the Spanish Grand Prix, McLaren are still arguably the slowest Renault-powered team in F1 and their suppliers won’t be letting up any time soon – redevelopments at Enstone are due to finish soon, and the factory team always expected to show their biggest improvements in the middle part of the season, so really putting daylight between themselves and Renault probably isn’t the most realistic priority of McLaren. Overtaking Haas at the majority of circuits will be, as will closing up to Red Bull and, at the very least, keeping pace with their new partners.

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