Fernando Alonso had to tread water again in 2016, one of too many such years for the gifted Spaniard in a mixed bag of an F1 career. But he will have been heartened by clear signs this season that, after years of underperformance, McLaren is clearly on its way back to competitiveness.
Whether he will still be under contract when the package is ready to deliver race wins and championships, is hard to say. Mercedes and Red Bull in particular will be extremely hard to beat in the next few years and Alonso is now 35 years old. He has at least another two years in him, if he wants to continue and sees a realistic chance of netting that third world title he has always dreamed of.
With the major aerodynamic rule change coming into force for 2017, which McLaren not only championed but did much of the development work on, there is a chance for the Woking team to make a leap forward.
The Achilles Heel for the past two seasons has been the Honda engine, but again there were clear signs of progress in 2016 and the Japanese company has been back in the F1 swamp long enough now to have taken on all the lessons of hybrid turbo engines and to replicate in their 2017 power unit what works about the benchmark Mercedes, while adding in their own Honda flavour.
There were all sorts of claims about how great the McLaren chassis was, claims that are hard to quantify as the engine clearly held the car back, but rival engineers who competed against the team this season highlighted many details and steps that appeared to take the chassis to third best in class, albeit some way behind the Mercedes and Red Bull, which were on a similar level.
It was possible to clearly track McLaren’s progress this year; broadly speaking they began the year behind Toro Rosso scrapping for the Top Ten and ended it battling with Williams and Force India for fifth and sixth place finishes. Alonso was on fantastic form with a string of results and performances that dragged the maximum out of the car on tracks where there was a chance to get a result, like the fifth place finishes in Monaco and Austin. But even his seventh place run in Singapore was a real highlight.
Jenson Button had a quiet season, with few standout performances and ‘retired’, in the sense that he said he would not be racing again in Formula 1, despite having a contract with the team for 2017 as an ambassador with an option to race in 2018 if required.
In reality, with Nico Rosberg’s shock decision to retire, there is likely to be a move around in the F1 driver market at the end of 2017 and McLaren will no doubt be a team that top drivers will consider as they look for the next ‘rising balloon’ that could take them to a world title in the next few years.
They have Stoffel Vandoorne taking up Button’s seat.
The 24 year old Belgian has had to wait a long time for his chance in the spotlight and is not likely to fluff his lines. He is another in a new generation of exciting young F1 drivers, alongside Verstappen, Sainz and Ocon, albeit a good few years older.
Engineers who have worked with him say he has a very high skill level, allied to a nature that is methodical and studious. His qualifying pace is clearly very strong and so it will be interesting to see how often he starts races in front of Alonso and whether he can progressively learn to stay in front as the season goes on.
If the team is in a position to challenge for the podium from time to time, there will be some real spice to this battle.
He performed very well on his one chance in Bahrain this year when Alonso was sidelined with a cracked rib after his Melbourne accident (above). He qualified 12th and finished 10th, McLaren’s first point of the season and as much as was possible with the car at the time.
Behind the scenes there was turmoil at the top of the company as the long forecast rupture between Ron Dennis and his fellow shareholders was finally completed. A car crash in slow motion, Dennis called the grounds for his removal from the helm ‘spurious’, but in reality this had been coming for a long time.
Former VW motorsport boss Jost Capito, whom Dennis had brought in to the F1 team, but who never really appeared to fit in, also left at the end of the season. Culturally McLaren has changed inside; a much more international blend of engineers and leaders, but it will still take a while for the culture set by Dennis over decades to evolve into the new McLaren for the next chapter of the story.
This leaves Eric Boullier running the F1 team with American commercial expert Zak Brown coming in as Executive Director of the McLaren Technology Group alongside Jonathan Neale, who has been running the operational side of McLaren for many years. It’s a strong line up, also demonstrating how it takes more than one Team Principal to run a modern F1 team.
F1 is a race on every level and McLaren has fallen behind commercially this year so doesn’t have the budget of the top three teams, Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari, which could hold them back from challenging for the top prizes.
So correcting that will be one of Brown’s main objectives over the next couple of years.
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