Back to square one for McLaren and Honda?

2017 F1 season preview: McLaren

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Pre-season testing left many wondering how much longer McLaren can stand to continue with their power unit supplier Honda.

Last year modest gains were made from the very low starting point which was established in 2015. But little evidence of any further progress was seen during testing. An awful lot of breakages were observed, however.

The team admitted its relationship with Honda was under “maximum” strain as broken engines were flown back to Japan. Questions put to the team about the power units were repeatedly answered with “ask Honda”. A scheduled media briefing with Honda’s Yusuke Hasegawa was cancelled.

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Where are the positives? The team suspect the problems with the heavily redesigned units are not “fundamental”. If a fix can be found quickly they may still get their season off to a good start. The abolition of the ‘tokens’ system also means they can introduced improvements more quickly.

But a precious eight days of logging development laps on the MCL32 have been wasted. For most of the time the car had to be run beneath its potential, preventing the team from assessing cooling performance and myriad other essential parameters.

Star driver Fernando Alonso at least professews to prefer the new generation of cars, having strongly criticised the old rules. But how can McLaren expect to hold onto him without a massive step forward in performance?

These are difficult questions for the team’s new management. The arrival of Zak Brown to run the F1 team in place of Ron Dennis, and the departure of Dennis appointee Jost Capito from the racing team, means there is no shortage of new energy on the chassis side of this operation. But that clearly isn’t where progress is most urgently needed.


14. Fernando Alonso

Despite the frustrations Alonso has obviously felt with McLaren’s lack of progress he was as tenacious and relentless as ever in pursuit of slim pickings last year. But surely he won’t stick around for more of this. With his McLaren contract set to expire this year he has said he will announce his plans in September. He is likely to be a front-runner for a 2018 Mercedes seat.

2. Stoffel Vandoorne

McLaren’s rookie driver, who made a one-off start last year, finally gets the full season many have been hoping this exciting young talent would get. Vandoorne dominated GP2 in 2015 then went to Japan’s demanding and specialised Super Formula series where he won twice. He’s well-prepared for what is likely to be a tough debut in a sub-standard car alongside one of the world’s best drivers.

Poll: Which McLaren driver will finish ahead in the championship?

Which McLaren driver will finish ahead in the championship?

  • Stoffel Vandoorne (27%)
  • Fernando Alonso (73%)

Total Voters: 222

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Author information

Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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73 comments on “Back to square one for McLaren and Honda?”

  1. Honda…What else can I say that hasn’t been said? Alonso deserves better, and although so far he has said he hasn’t regretted his decision, if Ferrari really are challenging for the title, I can maybe see his motivation dropping like it did in 2015. And not just Alonso, a young talent like Vandoorne should not be stuck with McLaren if they continue to be backmarkers.

  2. If Honda fails to turn around in a couple of races, that’s it.

    1. Given that they have been trying to do that for the past two+ years, I don’t see it happening.

      1. One can hope the abolition of token system will help

        1. Certainly not having the token system this year is better for them than if they had it. But you’d also hop they’d have turned up to the first test of the season with an engine that, you know, works.

        2. ExcitedAbout17
          15th March 2017, 15:50

          I’m not sure how abolishing the token system will help Honda.
          Their first problem is reliability and even under the token system there was no limit to change-areas if it was reliability related.
          Abolishing the token system will however allow the other 3 manufacturers to continue to tweak their PU in all areas and increase the performance gap to Honda.

          1. Without the token system, at least they can completely redesign the entire PU. The token system was flawed and only really enabled the manufacturer who got it right from the start to have a major advantage.

            Theoretically, Honda can use a new PU design for each race andvat some point, they should get it right, but, the costs would be astronomical for both Honda and McLaren…

          2. Theoretically, Honda can use a new PU design for each race andvat some point, they should get it right, but, the costs would be astronomical for both Honda and McLaren

            Not to mention most grid penalties in a season!

          3. I don’t think Honda ever did understand the token system and reliability modifications. Because they wasted valuable tokens on modifications they could have made on reliability grounds. They always seemed surprised Ferrari could come up with an almost new ICU, despite having less tokens tgan Honda, last season.
            Anyway, Honda may still be stuck in token mentality, else they’d have tried two different engine philosophies.
            Perhaps, their thinking is, “it’s a 10 year partnership, there is plenty of time”, as such 3 seasons of failures don’t matter.

          4. @Martin. Grid penalties were part of what I meant by cost.

        3. @tango

          Don’t count on it. Honda can take a step backwards more often without the token system. If they are at square 1 right now, it’s entirely possible they reach square -25 within a few engine ‘updates’ . In the meantime, Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault are only getting better.

  3. I genuinely can’t believe Honda were given the clean sheet rules they needed and managed to take a backwards step with them.

    I can understand Renault having teething problems as I don’t expect they have Mercedes or Ferraris resources, but Honda haven’t even managed to match Renault.

    I can’t imagine it’s a resources issue, it seems to me to be a combination of their base in Japan being so far away from F1’s heartland and their insular attitude on staff, they clearly don’t have the talent in-house and need to grab help to save the project.

    Ron Dennis claimed the power unit was a jewel and for all intents and purposes it’s been about as much use.

    1. I think Honda desperately need to bring their engine development to the UK and get some UK engineers in to work on it.

      I am truly astonished that an issue such as excessive vibration has not been picked up on the dyno as that it precisely what the dyno is for! It looks like they literally took an engine to the tests that had not had any development testing done on it. The vibration is clearly a design issue as it has been present on all the units. I can understand why a brand new design could have unforeseen issues when brought to a real world test and McLaren would have expected that, but the issues they have are the type of issues that should have been spotted before the engine ever made it in to the car so I can understand why McLaren are fuming!

      I do however wonder if the engine is actually reasonably powerful once its survival mode is turned off.

      1. You know I wouldn’t be surprised if the Honda potentially has Mercedes levels of power. Until it can be run at full capacity, it’s a bit unfair to call it a weak engine.
        2015 Honda = unwell weakling engine.
        2016 Honda = moderately healthy weakling engine.
        2017 Honda = unwell powerful engine.
        So it’s not back to square one, but they certainly need the new engine to be healed far quicker than the old one, and to be healed to a far higher degree.

        1. @the-last-pope

          They don’t have a powerful engine in 2017 though. How can it be 50hp down on the 2016 engine if it is ‘powerful’

          The situation in 2017 is actually worse than 2015 –
          2015 – Unreliable, slow engine with packaging benefit
          2016 – Semi-relaible, slow engine with minimal packaging benefit
          2017 – Unreliable, slow engine with no packaging benefit

          Unfortunately there isn’t a square zero… as that is exactly where Honda are right now.

          1. Isn’t that a bit unfair @todfod? Sure, Honda is in a embarrassing position but is this PU really down on power compared to its predecessor?
            Alonso said that they lacked power compared to Abu Dhabi, but isn’t it the result of the PU being detuned to get the car go? At full capacity, it may be faster than last year’s – only a supposition, I really don’t know.
            I think it’s too early to draw a conclusion on the PU overall power, we can only despair (or laugh) at its reliability.

          2. @todfod You don’t seriously believe that Honda have been running their engine at 100% power output do you? As Lee1 mentioned, the engine has only been run in a “Survival mode”. Just like a computer that is crashing, you run it in safe mode and try to figure out the problem at a much reduced performance level and capability. That the engine was even failing in this reduced level is an embarrassment for Honda and McLaren but it doesn’t in anyway mean the the season is a write off with another “GP2 engine”. We will just have to wait and see how quickly Honda can fix the vibration issue, and only when that happens will we see what the McLaren can do at 100% capability.

          3. @todfod You don’t seriously believe that Honda have been running their engine at 100% power output do you? As Lee1 mentioned, the engine has only been run in a “Survival mode”. Just like a computer that is crashing, you run it in safe mode and try to figure out the problem at a much reduced performance level and capability. That the engine was even failing in this reduced level is an embarrassment for Honda and McLaren but it doesn’t in anyway mean the the season is a write off with another “GP2 engine”. We will just have to wait and see how quickly Honda can fix the vibration issue, and only when that happens will we see what the McLaren can do at 100% capability.

      2. Development to UK/EU is a good idea.. I do not think any UK engineer can teach a Jap Engineer something useful.

        1. Georgeliverpool
          15th March 2017, 16:20

          Ilmor could provide some help

          1. Ilmor is still working with Renault. Maybe AER are the rumoured UK help?

          2. @the-last-pope, Ilmor and Renault have now parted company, as confirmed earlier in the year by Renault.

        2. Jamesluke241988
          15th March 2017, 19:29

          Have to disagree!

          The Mercedes Engine is almost completely design and built in the UK so i am sure a Uk engineer will be able to show plenty to their japanese friends

        3. The UK has the best motorsport engineers in the world. Aside from Ferrari and Sauber (and now Haas), every team is using UK engineering.

      3. Lee1, haven’t there been a few rumours that Honda had commissioned some engineers in the UK to undertake single cylinder tests which were eventually incorporated into the current engine? If that is correct, then it would be wrong to accuse them of not looking to bring in external consultants if they have actually done so.

      4. Mark in Florida
        15th March 2017, 22:21

        Didn’t Honda have a couple of years to see what everyone else was running before they came back? That size zero concept sounded dumb from the get go. They stuck with it even when they realized the turbo was too small and thought that they could maybe speed it up to make up the difference and it only killed the reliability. This new motor is showing signs of problems that they could have picked up on the dyno. Honda needs to bring over their v6 IndyCar motor and modify it for the ers. This motor is reliable and makes good power. Two things that Mclaren sorely need right now. I feel terrible for them to be in this position,it’s depressing to see a once great team suffering a long slow death.

    2. @philipgb I’m sure that RBR with their sneaky full car dyno on STR in 2014 as well as their car/dyno thing they just installed last year helped Renault quite a lot, as well as Mario Illien consulting…

  4. GP 2 engine ?

    1. Nah, a GP2 engine is more reliable.

      1. and more powerful

  5. Such a massive disappointment! I understand Honda pushed with the others to abandon the token system. I took for a certitude that Honda had super plans in their hats but couldn’t apply those because of the restrictions. It appears they haven’t any.

    They’re even further back and Hasegawa is ‘scared’ by the performance of the rivals (what a depressing admission of failure, again). Another year in limbo and not a single positive thing so far.

    Good luck to McLaren and the drivers!

  6. I think the poll question is funny, because driver skill will not be a factor in that outcome I suspect….

    1. Fernando is, by F1 standards, a very good driver. I voted for him because I don’t know if Stoffel Vandoorne is as good as he is or not.

      1. “Fernando is, by F1 standards, a very good driver.”

        Fernando is a GREAT driver – it’s not a stretch to say the best on the grid and on the shortlist of all time greats.

        1. Yes. On reflection I think I misunderstood what Alex’s comment meant. I think he was implying that Fernando probably has a preference clause in his contract which allows him to get the team to order Stoffel to move aside and let Fernando to take the lead when Stoffel is ahead. By going down that path then yes, Fernando will finish the season ahead of Stoffel, but not by the merit of his driving.

  7. I voted Alonso to win the team-mate battle but wouldn’t be surprised if the driver that finishes in front at the end of the year is the one that enjoyed better reliability.

    The whole team deserves better (not just Alonso @mashiat, McLaren/Honda don’t owe him anything, they owe it to themselves to be fighting upfront again, it is a team sport after-all), I never particularly cared for McLaren but seeing a well established, historic team like them dragging themselves in the back is painful, and F1 now more than ever needs its big names to deliver in this transition phase to Liberty.

    1. You mean the car habing an engine with less vibrations.

  8. Really feel sad for McLaren. However, it was their choice to go for Honda and that too on a long term contract with (apparently) no break clauses. When the deal was made in 2013, McLaren had established themselves as the no.2 chassis maker on the grid (basis 2012). They had shown themselves to be slightly inefficient operationally (Hamilton’s slow pitstops in 2012) and little unreliable (Hamilton’s retirements in 2012) but they were definitely a top team. May be, they should have accepted being a customer team of Renault like Red Bull.

    1. The 2012 retirements weren’t the fault of McLaren, more the Merc engine they were running and specifically the alternator that was being used…

      1. I am sure I am being unfair, but one would have expected an unreliable or insufficiently powerful alternator to be replaced before the next race.

    2. At the time they believed being a Mercedes engine customer meant they would always be behind Mercedes in development, and they needed a dedicated engine partner. I think their mistake however was going to Japan. They would have been better off with Cosworth or even getting Ricardo to make them alongside the road car engines.

  9. I voted for stoffel, simply because i dont believe Alonso will stay till the end of the year so stoffel will get more points.

    1. … if he ll get any points at all !!


      1. Exactly. It will be hard to outscore each other if points are not within reach.

    2. Same here.. Alonso will lose his drive and Stoffel picks up the pieces.

    3. OmarRoncal - Go Seb!!! (@)
      15th March 2017, 22:21

      Totally agree. I also voted for Vandoorne for that reason.

  10. Andrew Purkis
    15th March 2017, 12:16

    I would say theyll give Honda till Spain to sort this

    then I would say there will be a break clause and theyll look elsewhere

  11. The abolition of the ‘tokens’ system also means they can introduced improvements more quickly.

    Not really, as they’re still bound to the PU limit. Hardly conductive if they’re starting every race at the beginning of the season at the foot of the grid, behind even Sauber and then have even more penalties through attrition later on.

    1. They built this engine without the token system and it appears worse then the 2015 engine. Why can they sort this out with 4 engine upgrades in 10 months when they are worse of than last year with 12 months of no token developmeny?

    2. I am curious if McLaren will change the Honda powerunit… every two races or just every race… Because they used 8 engines in testing and they didn’t even had two cars…

  12. You know it’s a bad time to be a McLaren fan when this exists.

  13. Buy manor and use there cars maybe get points

  14. Its getting ridiculous now. It is a major shambles, barely any sponsors, prize money dwindling and the ‘big 3’ getting further away. Mclaren need massive changes and Honda need a huge mindset change. I dont see Alonso seeing the year out.

  15. Voted for Vandoorne cause he will be more motivated.

  16. Voted for neither because given current circumstances it would seem impossible for either driver to score any points.

    What will happen, or what can happen with McLaren/Honda this season?
    • A miracle will take place and the Honda engine will almost be on par with Renault allowing McLaren to develop their car throughout the season and score meager points in 2017. (Best case scenario.)
    • Limited progress is made with the Honda engine allowing for McLaren to finish a few races, but without scoring any points in 2017. (Likely scenario.)
    • The Honda engine for 2017 is such an impossibly useless lump it is totally scrapped and McLaren reverts to retrofitting the 2016 Honda engine into their 2017 chassis. (If this is even permitted under the regs it still is an unlikely scenario since the 2017 engine was such a complete redesign that the 2016 engine is unlikely to be retrofitted into the 2017 chassis anyway. So, unlikely scenario.)
    • McLaren throws in the towel for 2017 and does not complete the 2017 season after not qualifying under the 107% rule for multiple events/ Qualifying under special allowance by the FIA while not meeting the 107% rule, but engines explode after low amounts of race laps completed in multiple events. (Sadly, this scenario does not appear to be too unlikely at this point in time.)

    What a disaster. Maybe the board has actually done Ron Dennis a large favor by dismissing him before this season. As a longtime fan of Bruce McLaren and the team of his name, I hope for a miracle. I am not optimistic…

  17. I had a question about which engine McLaren will use for the foreseeable future. As I understand it, the rules stipulate that the manufacturers have to supply a team with an engine if they are found without one, but won’t McLaren’s contract with Honda until 2020 (I think?) undermine that?

    In the case that McLaren have had enough with Honda and try to jettison the contract, surely Merc, Ferrari and Renault can refuse to supply McLaren, saying that they have a valid contract with Honda, break clause or no? How exactly is that rule enforced?

    1. Money talks, He Man.

      Although, how much of that McLaren have remains to be seen…

    2. I think the contract is to 2025…

    3. I believe Mclaren’s engine situation will be the story of the year. From what I’ve heard, Honda foot the bill on a lot of Mclaren’s expenses – Half the drivers fee, engine supply costs and $25 mln in sponsorship money. The impact of Mclaren breaking the contract could affect them aversely, but if Honda broke the contract, they could easily salvage a settlement from the team.

      I think Honda need to reach a certain level of humiliation before they decide to leave the sport again…. and honestly they’ve done a pretty good job of embarrassing themselves over the past 3 years. With Boullier making comments like – “We’d be winning with a Mercedes engine” and Alonso saying that “everyone in Mclaren are ready to win.. except Honda”, and not to mention the amount of slating that will happen during the season when Honda fail to deliver, it’s just a matter of time before Honda bows out.

      For Honda, the best possible scenario would be a Mercedes engine in 2018, and hopefully, a decent settlement from Honda so they can pay for the Mercedes engines with ease. I think Mclaren were diplomatic when they addresses Honda in the press over the past 2 seasons, but this year, it should be a little more ruthless from the Mclaren team. Only a fool would believe that Mclaren still want to be partnered with Honda.

      1. Boullier did not make that comment! He was asked by a journalist if he thought they would, answered yes and then it was woven into a headline as if he had said it.

  18. I voted Vandoorne quite confidently, simply because Alonso won’t stay.

    1. @xtwl I voted for Vandoorne for EXACTLY the same reason.

      Fernando has to be unluckiest driver alive. We’ll see how unlucky he is if McLaren find their form in time for Button to see the season out in his car after he walks.

  19. David Rodriguez
    15th March 2017, 17:40

    I voted Alonso by far the best driver on the grid. Should of been a 5 time champion by now but wasn’t meant to be. He will leave mclaren next season and I think he will be chasing the ferrari or renault seats.

  20. voted for Vandoorne, can’t see Alonso lasting the season (Vandoorne to outscore combo of Alonso and Button – the other car – as well methinks)

  21. No way out for McLaren or Honda – they are in too deep now. It’s going to take time (think years) but they will get it right.
    Of course Alonso will stay this year – 40 million reasons why.
    As for resigning, unless McHonda is a top 4 team by mid-season and improving, he will leave.
    I can’t see him signing at Merc, Bottas will fill their needs and they want to keep Hamilton happy.
    Red Bull doesn’t need him and their drivers will stay put.
    Ferrari won’t pick him up unless Vettel screws up like he did last year. They still are fond of Alonso.
    I think Renault, who have shown interest in Alonso in the past, is the most likely scenario.
    I hope McHonda can pull off a miracle – I want him to stay put and bring McLaren back to the glory days.

    1. My point exactly. McLaren will stick with Honda for at least a couple more years unless Honda simply pulls the plug on the whole project. And if they do, than it’s Renault engines and another lifetime spent in the midfield for the team. McLaren is screwed either way. Their best bet is to stick with Honda and hope something good comes out of their hands at some point.

      Alonso, on the other hand, while I do think he will see this season through, will not renew with McLaren at the end of the season, unless a miracle happens.
      But he isn’t going to Mercedes, Ferrari or Red Bull either. Alonso is a fantastic driver, but he’s also a high-risk asset for any of the top three teams in their current configurations and line-ups. They won’t take their chances.
      The most sensible option for both sides at this point would be for Alonso to go back to Renault and end his F1 career there. Hopefully on a high, especially since Renault seem to be more positive and committed to getting it right in the end than both Honda and McLaren. And if that happens, the Alonso – Hulkenberg pairing is pretty much the line-up they should be aiming to challenge with.

  22. Surely if the only (major) issue is vibrations, that should not be difficult to find, and therefore fix. Its not like the motor itself is flawed, it is a vibration issue causing electronic failure. Fix the vibration, cure the electronic gremlins, turn up the wick, jobs a good ‘un.

    I simplify I know, but its not like we saw molten honda engines on the side of the track, they were silent failures, the engine sounds much better than last year, i.e. not like a can of nuts and bolts.

    The optimist in me wants to think they will find the route cause of the vibrations, it will be a simple fix, Mc-Honda come out fighting and people wonder if it was just a big rope-a-dope.
    The realist in me says it will be fixed, but the engine is still inherently flawed, in terms of power, and they still only scrape home against Sauber.

  23. I reckon we’ll get a branded Honda engine similar to the Red Bull-Tag Heuer situation

  24. Nowt stranger than folk – “Success *now*!!! Nooo!!! It’s Armageddon”! To all intents and purposes, the engine is brand, spanking new and was running at much reduced power (which everyone really should know has kick-back effects on the the MGU-H and MGU-K systems…) In spite of this, both drivers managed to set 1:21.3s, sandwiched by Haas and well ahead of Sauber. Once Honda has begun to sort the problems we should see a steady rise through the field and by the end of the season, there will be quite a lot of fans with egg on their faces.

  25. This team has become a real joke and have nothing really going for them anymore. Serve themselves rights as Ron Dennis’s arrogance over the years has come back to bite them. They’ve been saying for years they will have a title sponsor and haven’t managed to find one. This along with a paint job for their 2017 car that has copied the Manor team from a few years ago and looks so amateurship that it embarrasses the sport, a has been driver in Alonso who always complains, an engine supplier that lacks any power, and now begging Mercedes for new engines along with a team manager with a weak track record equals to me this team doesn’t have long before it becomes a member of the F1 team scrap heap! Enjoy the back of the grid!

  26. Voting Vandoorne not because I think he’s better than Alonso (far from it) but because I would not be at all surprised if Alonso quits McLaren (either retiring or just flat out breaking the contract) before the season is up.

    Regarding the title: at this point I think they would be doing well if they manage to get back to Square 1 by the end of the season. They are if anything significantly farther back than they were when they started with Honda.

  27. Given how testing went you wouldn’t be surprised if McLaren did not even manage to get a car to the finish in the first few races, with the removal of the development token system Honda have gone for a complete redesign, however the fresh start also seems to be a fresh start of the unreliability which plagued Honda’s latest stint in F1.

    Hopefully Honda can find a fix to the problems quickly but even if that happens McLaren have lost valuable testing time and will find it hard to catch up. I think the best they can hope for is that they become more competitive as the season goes on but it would hard to see this year being an improvement on recent seasons.

    No matter how good Vandoorne is or whatever success he goes on to have in F1 I don’t see him getting the better of Alonso in his first full season, especially with the car McLaren have this year.

    There would have to be a massive improvement in performance at McLaren during the season to convince Alonso to sign on for next year, I think Alonso will still be in F1 in 2018 but only if he can get a decent drive.

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