Seconds after he crossed the line to take fifth place in the Formula 1 season-opening Australian Grand Prix, McLaren F1 Team driver Fernando Alonso declared over the team radio that: “Now we can fight.”
After three seasons of myriad Honda power unit related problems, 2018 ushered in a new era at McLaren, as the eight-time constructors’ champions embarked on a new technical partnership with French manufacturer, Renault.
Within Woking, the aim was to be on par with the Aston Martin Red Bull Racing team, in terms of outright pace and consistency. After all, McLaren had spent the Honda years remarking about how good the chassis was, and that it was only Japanese power or lack thereof, that prevented wins and podiums from being achieved.
Racing director Eric Boullier, and CEO Zak Brown decided to sever the Honda partnership, several years early. Through protracted and complex negotiations, the Renault deal was signed. It was the best McLaren could get, in that both Mercedes and Ferrari either rejected a link-up or were not interested.
In pre-season testing, the new MCL33 chassis proved to be unreliable but promisingly did show an increase in performance. With many questions still to be answered, the first long-haul flight of the year awaited, as F1 travelled to Melbourne for the season-opener.
Yes, Alonso did take fifth in the opening race. Ye,s he did manage to keep Red Bull driver Max Verstappen behind him for nearly half of it. And yes, McLaren did score double points, with Stoffel Vandoorne taking home two points for a ninth place finish.
But this result was a mirage. Circumstances dictated that the two McLaren’s would finish so well in the points:
- Valtteri Bottas being out of position, fifteenth on the grid following his qualifying crash and being forced to fight through the field come raceday.
- Both Haas F1 Team drivers, Kevin Magnussen (fourth), and Romain Grosjean (sixth) were running well in points before their calamitous pitstops, which eliminated both in the space of a couple of laps.
- Alonso was fortunate to emerge millimetres ahead of Verstappen after the double world champion had made his stop, under safety car conditions.
- The Australian GP was criticised for a lack of overtaking (nothing new for the race), with Verstappen estimated that you would need to be nearly two seconds faster than the car ahead to make a move. He wasn’t and couldn’t get past Alonso.
Worryingly for McLaren, if failed to get either of its cars into Q3, with Alonso being the highest starter in eleventh place. Hopes of matching Red Bull’s pace were quickly dashed, when the similarly engined RB14 proved to be 1.9s quicker than the MCL33 in qualifying. Work to do.
Boullier revealed in mid-April that the real-spec 2018 McLaren would be unveiled in Barcelona, for the Spanish Grand Prix in May. The Frenchman told Motorsport.com that: “we missed the schedule targets, which means the car we’ll have in Barcelona should have been in Australia.” Yet another excuse was added to the ever-growing list emanating from Woking.
The main problem for the MCL33 was that it was proving to be ‘draggy, which compromised outright qualifying pace, and hampered race pace, albeit to a lesser effect.
It didn’t stop Alonso and Vandoorne from racking up a further twenty-five points in the next three grands prix, before the heralded Barcelona upgrade showed up.
Boullier bites the bullet
Granted, the new update was striking. Out went the favoured stub-style nose, with a Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport-inspired design being brought to Catalan.
While Alonso did haul the papaya and blue painted car into the Q3 shootout, Vandoorne just missed out with the eleventh fastest Q2 time, the race was underwhelming.
Hopes of leading the midfield were dashed when Magnussen took a excellent sixth, and Carlos Sainz, Jr. seventh, a long way ahead of Alonso in his home grand prix.
After that eighth-place finish, McLaren did not score another point until Austria. In France, the car was so far off the pace, that Alonso, fresh from winning the Le Mans 24 Hours the week before, had the igmany of finishing last. Heads were about to roll.
Designers Tim Goss, and Matt Morris were both shown the door marked ‘exit’ at Woking, as Boullier too fell on his sword, after the race in Speilberg.
His departure meant a reshuffle, with his job being split into two separate roles. Alonso’s 2017 Indy500 mentor Gil de Ferran became sporting director, with Alonso’s former race engineer, Andrea Stella promoted to performance director. A strong Spanish influence you might say.
After the rock bottom of France, results steadily picked up as the season meandered toward the summer break. Alonso picked up a trio of eighth place finishes, with the exception being Germany, where he was sixteenth.
At the half-way stage, McLaren is seventh in the constructors’ on 52 points, with Vandoorne only accounting for eight of them, having not scored a top ten result since Baku.
14 | Fernando Alonso | Points: 44 | Position 9th Best Result 5th (x1)
Speaking to the media ahead of the 2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix, Alonso said that “whatever I do next year, I will win.” And he was right. Except he hasn’t won in F1.
He is taking on a full World Endurance Championship season, in lieu of solely focusing on F1. And it is paying off, with two wins from two in the WEC, in Belgium and at Le Mans. Surely WEC glory awaits.
Back to the F1, for a moment. Alonso is driving as ferociously as ever, wrangling every hundredth out of the equipment he has been given. And once again, as has so often been the case, it is sub-standard.
The determination Alonso showed in getting the car back to the Baku pits, with only two wheels left on his wagon was remarkable. In the frenzied ending to that race, a better result than eighth was possible, but the four points were well earned.
Alonso’s low-point was in France, as F1 returned to Paul Ricard. Unusually he was off the boil, and spun at Turn 3, when Sebastian Vettel stuck the Ferrari around the outside. Finishing a lapped sixteenth, and as the last classified finisher would have hurt.
2 | Stoffel Vandoorne | Points: 8 | Position 16 | Best Result 8th (x1)
Vandoorne’s career has lost all the momentum it got in the back-end of the 2017 season. Assured and confident drives in Singapore and Malaysia brought him good points, and as we’ve discussed a good hope for the McLaren-Renault package.
But something has gone wrong. The Belgian is the only driver on the grid yet to out-qualify their team-mate so far this season. In a run that stretches back seventeen grands prix, Alonso has already secured the team-mate head-to-head qualifying battle at mid-point.
The 26-year-old started his second full season in F1 brightly, with a trio of points finishes giving him eight points from the opening four rounds. But since Baku, Vandoorne has not secured a points finish.
An alarmingly slump in form peaked in the German Grand Prix, when he was the outright slowest qualifier, and was nearly a full second down on Alonso in the Q1 segment.
He mused that he had not forgotten how to drive a racing car, as Alonso offered a branch of reprieve to the underfire Vandoorne.
The thirty-two time race winner remarked that:“I think he’s doing all right,”
“The car, definitely [in] the last two races, it seems that it has some performance issues and we know that there are clear signs from the data that there is less downforce in that car.”
For whatever reason, Vandoorne’s chassis was producing less downforce than Alonso’s similar machine, so for the Hungarian Grand Prix, Vandoorne was given a new one. Although it was not a brand-new chassis, it was still a welcome relief.
In Budapest Vandoorne’s performance was markedly stronger. Right on Alonso’s pace, he was unlucky to retire from a likely points finish, when the transmission cried enough.
Without a doubt, Vandoorne is fighting for his F1 future. The Daniel Ricciardo-inspired drivers merry-go-round has linked Sainz, Jr, Esteban Ocon, Sergio Pérez, and even Kimi Räikkönen with a seat at the team. With Alonso gone, Vandoorne may earn a reprieve, as McLaren will not want to go into the new technical regulations of 2019 with two new fresh drivers. But if he stays, then Vandoorne faces a big fight for his F1 career.
Whatever happens, it looks very likely that at least one big name will struggle to find a seat on the grid for next season.