The McLaren-Honda Divorce – Lightning Doesn’t Strike Twice


Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd

The McLaren-Honda relationship followed the same path as countless other sequels; a much hyped, much anticipated return to glory days that eventually turned out to be a flailing, embarrassing mess that makes everyone wish they hadn’t come back at all.

For the last three years, the McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team has been plagued with reliability issues, unacceptable results and embarrassing displays, culminating in the much-overdue divorce between the two companies. So what went so wrong between McLaren and Honda?

Old Highs, New Lows

Whilst the partnership is synonymous with failures today, it wasn’t always that way.

Anyone with even a passing interest in Formula 1 will have heard of the MP4/4; it’s a car that’s widely considered to be the best car ever produced, it’s a car that took fifteen out of sixteen possible wins in 1988, and it’s a car that was powered by a Honda engine. So strong was the partnership that McLaren, powered by Honda engines, took both the Driver’s and Constructors’ titles for four consecutive years between ’88 and ’91. They were unstoppable.

Fast forward to the last three years and the team has been anything but. In just this last season they had fifteen non-finishes, eight points-finishes, and seven double-finishes (with just one where both cars were in the points). Since adopting Honda engines in 2015 not only has the team failed to reach its 2014 season points tally, but they’ve failed to reach it with their last three seasons combined. That’s poor for any team but when it’s a team with McLaren’s racing pedigree, it’s a sorry state to be in.

Doomed from the start?

2015 was supposed to be a fantastic year for McLaren. The team hadn’t been able to recreate their 2008 success when Lewis Hamilton took the Driver’s title, and had started to take on lower-calibre drivers. Sergio Perez joined in 2013, whilst 2014 saw Perez out and Kevin Magnussen in to shoulder the team’s hopes. Neither of these drivers was ever, or in reality is ever, likely to win a title, and it showed in their results – both years finishing fifth in the Constructors’. 2015 saw not only a return to Honda engines, but the return of Fernando Alonso. With three world titles between the Spaniard and teammate Jenson Button and Honda engines once again powering their car, everything was set for a long-overdue return to form.

This didn’t happen. Issues plagued the team from the outset, with the first striking the team before the season had even begun.

During pre-season testing in 2015 Fernando Alonso had a heavy, still-unexplained crash at the Circuit de Catalunya, losing control, hitting a wall, and suffering concussion. So bad was the crash that, upon waking up in hospital, he said he thought it was 1995, and that he was thirteen years old. He did eventually recover from his retrograde amnesia, though missed the first race of the season.

2016 saw another death-defying crash featuring Alonso. Trying to overtake a slow-moving Esteban Gutierrez, he catapulted over the Mexican’s rear wing, barrelling through the run-off and ending upside down against a wall. Though this wasn’t the fault of the engine, it was the most spectacular event of the season for the team.

Forming a pattern, Alonso missed yet another race in 2017 – though this was, for once, not related to injury, but to the team’s poor performance. In a Formula 1 first Fernando, fed up with the lack of reliability in his McLaren-Honda Formula 1 car, missed the Monaco Grand Prix to take part in the Indy 500 with the McLaren-Honda-Andretti team. This proved to be another way for the team to fail the two-time World Champion though, as he retired from the race with engine issues.

In addition to Alonso missing one race each season, another running theme of the partnership was grid penalties.

With great unreliability comes great numbers of grid penalties, and McLaren-Honda had their fair share. All in all, the team had 845 engine-related grid penalties in the three years they worked together. That’s the equivalent of seven grid penalties for each driver for each race over the three seasons they worked together. Even with one of the best drivers in the world, you’re going to struggle to make it work when you’re fighting against a tide pushing you to the back of the grid every race.

Lasting effects

proper disaster“. That’s how team boss Eric Boullier described the impact Honda engines had on McLaren’s credibility.

This lack of credibility hindered the team’s ability to pick up sponsors, leaving the team’s cars looking noticeably blank and limiting the sponsorship money they’re able to bring in. The breaking of the deal with Honda also leaves a reportedly £74m hole in McLaren’s bank account, though sources say this isn’t something to worry about.

Is the outlook good?

Despite the last three years being some of the darkest the team has faced, they do seem to be getting towards the light at the end of the tunnel, and some genuine positives have grown from the overwhelming negatives. They know they have one of the best drivers on the grid in Fernando Alonso, who has repeatedly and uncompromisingly dragged every last millisecond out of the car each and every time he gets in it. Nobody else would, or has, fought as hard (and been on the radio to discuss issues as much) as Alonso has, and his experience and tenacity has kept the team going through this dark patch.

Alonso’s team-mate Stoffel Vandoorne is also a huge benefit, and has proved to be a great addition to the team. Both drivers have worked well together over the last season, and have created a strong dynamic which will help to propel McLaren forwards once the car is in a better place.

Speaking of cars, they know they have a strong one. The McLaren’s chassis proved a force to be reckoned with when Alonso took his car to sixth place in Hungary, showing that with a better engine, it could be a real challenger.

Next year we see McLaren moving to Renault power. Whilst Renault weren’t exactly the best at the start of the season, their performance (and their engines’ performance in the Red Bull Racing cars) improved notably throughout the season. This is great news for the McLaren team, and should be taken as a sign of promise for next year.

With the car, the drivers and now the engine looking to be up to scratch, everything is in place for McLaren to finally save face and return to the podium in 2018. For both McLaren and Formula 1, the future’s bright. The future’s orange.