There are increasing signs that McLaren Honda’s reliability and performance issues, which came to light in winter testing, are much more severe than at first realised and that it is time for some serious decisions to be made.
One option being considered is a switch of engine supplier – but what does that entail?
We have the answers below.
As well as simply getting a car to run quickly and without breaking down, there are many broader factors at play here in any decision on McLaren’s strategy, such as finance, engineering resource and long-term plan.
And there is also the question of Fernando Alonso. He has made it clear that he plans to stay in F1 beyond the end of 2017, he does not want his career to end on a down note, so McLaren’s Eric Boullier has told a leading Spanish media outlet that McLaren has to consider what steps to take to ensure it can keep him beyond the end of his current contract.
“I think Fernando is being honest with us, just as we’re being honest with him. He first wanted to see how the new car was. And how the new regulations are. And I think he likes the new F1. He wants to be competitive because he has talent to show the world and to himself,” the Frenchman told AS.
“And we need to be competitive to keep him happy. If we’re competitive he’ll be happy and if not he’ll take his own decisions…”
So what would you do in McLaren’s shoes?
There are three options:
1. Stick with Honda while they resolve their problems, but insist on a plan involving external assistance to ensure that they get a competitive product going forward.
Advantages: Continuity of $60m a year plus free engines, contribution to drivers salaries, stability, manufacturer support.
Disadvantage: 2017 campaign virtually a right-off, Alonso likely to leave, hard to sell sponsorship for 2018 against low level competitiveness and a negative story.
2. Activate a break clause at the end of 2017 or urge Honda to withdraw and appeal to the other manufacturers for a supply from 2018 onwards
Advantages: Continuity of funding, especially if Honda withdraws and pays-off the team, as it did with Brawn in 2008/9, time to develop a competitive 2018 package
Disadvantages: 2017 season a write-off, low points. Alonso may well look elsewhere.
3. Break with Honda and re-engineer the 2017 car around a new power unit
Advantages: Team would be likely to compete higher midfield from Spain onwards (after starting the season with Honda) and would probably score somewhere up to 100 points, better chance of retaining Alonso, better chance of selling sponsorship for 2018
Disadvantages: Huge engineering exercise requiring two months to optimise, expense and loss of financial support unless they leave funding as in clause 2, embarrassment for Honda, would expose any weaknesses in McLaren chassis. This could lead to Honda taking the rest of the year to develop the engine outside and come back in 2018 or withdraw from F1 if they feel they will not be able to get on top of F1 hybrid engine technology.
Either option 2 or 3 would be controversial, but it’s clear that something has gone fundamentally wrong in the trust and communication between McLaren and Honda and they cannot be ruled out.
At the launch of the MCL32, Honda’s Yusuke Hasegawa said that the 2017 Honda unit would be on the same level as the 2016 Mercedes.
“We have modified our engine with a much lower centre of gravity and lighter weight. However, it means we have a great challenge for the development, so I am very proud our team members have made a great job for this season. Of course we are not making any promises for this season, but our aim is to make the progress and catch up the frontrunners so that we keep pushing to make more progress.
“I don’t know how much gain Mercedes is hoping to make. But of course we are aiming to achieve the top level of the PU, which is Mercedes at this moment, but we don’t know how much power they are making now. But I am feeling that we are not behind from them (from start of 2016), but I think we will catch up with them at the beginning of the season.”
Given the reality as it was exposed in Barcelona testing from the outset, that it wasn’t even going to on the level Honda was at in 2016, it appears that Hasegawa wasn’t in possession of the full facts from his engineers in Japan about the engine and neither were the engineering staff at McLaren who liaise with Honda.
Trust is such a strange thing in an F1 team; it’s tough between team mates sometimes as we have seen with Vettel/ Webber and more recently Hamilton/Rosberg. But between a team and its engine partner it is fundamental.
So there will be some tough and frank conversations going on now about what happens next and it will be fascinating to see which way the partnership goes.
If they go for Option 2 or the ‘nuclear’ Option 3 then the team needs to adapt to a customer engine from one of the other manufacturers. The new rules say that one of the other manufacturers must supply them.
While McLaren and Ferrari have always been culturally estranged, Ferrari is well equipped to supply a new team having dropped Toro Rosso from its roster. They have enough people to staff that. Likewise Mercedes, after losing Manor from its customer roster.
Renault do not have as many people on staff, having gone from two supplies to three for 2017.
As for the engineering, although the rules say that the main mounting points have to be standard, it’s far more complex than that. Brawn famously engineered its 2009 car at late notice around a Mercedes engine and more recently Toro Rosso had a very late call to switch to Ferrari engines.
So here is what it takes to switch F1 engines.
Phase 1. Answer the big general questions: What are the heat rejection figures? How are the oil and water cooled and where do the pipes go? What is the cooling layout? Are there areas in the sidepods that need re-allocating? How does the rear suspension fit with the new engine? How does it connect to the gearbox?
Phase 2. Answer the physical questions: Where are the drives, the pump drives, the shafts coming out of the engine to the fuel pump, the ERS drive? Sometimes things are built into the back of the chassis, moulded around the oil tank design for example and if they are well out with the new unit it could mean a new chassis design. This could also mean having to re-homologate the chassis with the FIA and repass crash tests.
Phase 3. Electronics: The control unit for the battery can be placed quite differently for different power units. Some place them above the battery. The battery is around 30cm x 30cm with a depth of around 120mm and is located underneath the fuel tank, just behind the driver. Moving its control unit could be a real pain.
Phase 4. Finer details: How do the wiring looms run? Everything is as tightly packaged as possible under the skin of an F1 car and modifications can require revisions to the bodywork and that means valuable wind tunnel time. Gear ratios are another key consideration. They are set for the season based on power and torque numbers. But a new engine will have different numbers and this may require new ratios. Some take 10 weeks, others 4 weeks and are fabricated by outside suppliers.
In the case of McLaren going for Option 3 ideally you would like to have a month to do the redesign and manufacturing and another month to test it on a chassis dyno rig. But manufacturers are sensitive about rival manufacturer’s staff being around when these things are tested.
A new F1 car typically gets around 4,000km of testing at Barcelona before the season starts. So from the point at which you started running your new engine in the chassis, you’d have to allow at least that much running with the new package before you were confident of reliability.
That’s around 800 laps of a typical F1 circuit and would mean that the first four races after you relaunched would be challenging. So if you went for a change now, you’d be looking at racing from Spain onwards and then around Baku in June you would have a settled package. So that leaves 12 races to make the most of it. It’s a massive undertaking and a massive headache, especially during the season.
But they have a headache already. So what is the answer?
So what would you do in the circumstances? Leave your comments in the section below