Continuing our series looking back at the main talking points of 2017, after the renaissance of Ferrari and the thrills of the Perez vs Ocon duel we now turn our attention to McLaren and its divorce with Honda after three years of misery.
What do you do if you are in a relationship where things are not working, where promises have been made that were not kept and where you can’t see a successful way forward? In personal relationships that often leads to a divorce.
In most divorce cases there is a financial dynamic too; splitting up means making sure that both sides have adequate financial provisions. McLaren had to accept a big financial hit from exiting this marriage, luckily it has wealthy shareholders who could sanction it, which is why drastic action was taken and the divorce was confirmed in September in Singapore.
The end of the relationship between McLaren and Honda felt more like a personal breakdown than merely a corporate decision to cease collaboration, because of the shared history but also because of the very human nature of the failures which led to this sad outcome.
Senior managers at Honda underestimated the challenge of making a hybrid turbo F1 engine and in such a short time frame.
McLaren weren’t in great shape in May 2013 when it was announced that Honda would be coming back to partner with them in F1 for the 2015 season. They had approved the Brawn team being given a Mercedes engine at the 11th hour for 2009 (at the height of FOTA unity) and it turned out to be a massive own goal; as a consequence Mercedes used that as a platform to buy their own F1 team and to separate with McLaren, which became just a customer.
As a proud team they needed a works engine partner, more so as the financials weren’t looking too rosy either; the difference for McLaren between paying for Mercedes engines as a customer in 2014 and getting a works engine and team funding from Honda in 2015 was a net $100 million annually.
Looking back, Honda could have done with 2015 as another development year, learning from what was going on in F1, hiring some outside talent, doing its R&D work, which always involves a lot of failure, in private.
Instead they didn’t hire outsiders and did their development work in public, with Alonso calling it a ‘GP2 engine’, sitting in deck chairs and all the other unflattering gestures which made the Japanese circle the wagons and act defensively.
The Honda senior management is responsible for some terrible mistakes, not reaching down into the organisation to understand where things were going wrong and to be open minded in how to fix them. That is especially true on the engine side because the lead times are so long, compared to an aerodynamic change, which can be made in weeks.
After a 2016 season in which things seemed to be improving they sanctioned a completely new philosophy of engine to shoot for the moon, but engineering doesn’t work like that and the 2017 engine couldn’t run on the track the way it ran on a drawing board -it was a step backwards in power and reliability.
The end of the affair was clear at that point, in winter testing in Barcelona when Alonso and the new management of McLaren realised that they had no hope of competing this year on the track or in the sponsorship market.
McLaren is not blameless in all this. They sat there at the launch in 2017 predicting a step up the grid from 2016 but how could the engineers responsible for the Honda relationship not know what the real numbers were and be so blind to the reality? It speaks of the age old problem of British F1 teams not communicating clearly with Japanese engineers, not overcoming the linguistic and cultural challenges of such a relationship.
And it highlighted an age old problem at McLaren of complacency; something Nigel Mansell identified in 1995 when things went wrong in his relationship with the team and which has run through the organisation at various times since, even when all the evidence points to the need to disrupt the organisation.
That is happening now and McLaren have given themselves a big challenge with Renault customer engines for 2018 onwards. For Renault that deal made sense because it watered down the intensity of its troubled relationship with Red Bull.
Red Bull as a company benefited, though, as it was able to take the free engines and the team subsidy and make Toro Rosso more sustainable, while at the same time keeping an eye on the Japanese to see whether they start to really get their act together. If that does happen there could be the option of switching across to the main team for 2020, for example.
It was an episode which didn’t reflect well on F1 and the sport’s powerbrokers had to work hard behind the scenes to keep Honda in F1 beyond the end of 2017.
That has been achieved and just like in a personal divorce, everyone can now ‘move on’.
What did you think of McLaren-Honda in 2017? Leave your comment in the section below