Third year of Honda pain is one too many for McLaren

2017 F1 season review: McLaren

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McLaren’s constructors points tally at the end of their third and, ultimately, final year with Honda tells you everything you need to know about why their union has ended prematurely. A meagre 28 points left them ninth out of ten teams as they utterly failed to build on their 2016 result.

McLaren had hoped that by their third year Honda would have learned from their mistakes and been able to deliver an engine capable of matching its rivals. Instead it was obvious as early as pre-season the McLaren were not going to make the progress they had hoped for.

McLaren team stats 2017

Best race result (number)6 (1)
Best grid position (number) 6 (1)
Non-classifications (technical/other) 15 (8/7)
Laps completed (% of total) 1,838 (76.46%)
Laps led (% of total) 0 (0%)
Championship position (2016)9 (6)
Championship points (2016)30 (76)
Pit stop performance ranking8

Honda’s overhaul in engine philosophy – deciding that they would use a similar concept from Mercedes – effectively put them back at square one in terms of development. “The biggest problems we faced in the last three years was winter testing, because we came to the next season, and we started from zero,” observed Fernando Alonso. It was no different this year, and before the cars were sent to Melbourne the team knew it was in for a hellish year.

The internal pressures eventually cracked the faultline between the two parties. McLaren’s default response to any question about its power unit problems in the early part of the season was a blunt ‘ask Honda’.

The scrapping of the development token system meant Honda could take greater steps than before. Despite that, their promises of getting on par with Mercedes’ late-2016 performance weren’t reached. Of course it didn’t help matters that the team were only supposed to use four complete power units all seasons, with grid penalties for any extra examples used. By the end of the year Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne had amassed 23 between them.

Unsurprisingly there were few highs in the team’s season. Alonso even chose to skip Monaco, one of few tracks where a decent points finish was possible, in order to race at Indianapolis. There too his brilliant showing was curtailed by a Honda engine failure – the story of his season, and the last two as well.

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Alonso’s season-best sixth position in Hungary and Vandoorne’s back-to-back seventh places in Singapore and Malaysia was as good as it got all year for McLaren. Time and again Alonso showed that McLaren do have the car underneath them and the development capacity to put the car further up the grid than their Honda engine allowed.

All year long Alonso never let up in his criticism of Honda, especially on the team radio, and at times even seemed to have parked a healthy car. At the final round he was asked to name a positive aspect of the last three years and struggled to.

Honda still hasn’t solved its engine problems
“On the performance side, in the races, [it’s] difficult to pick up one race because obviously the performance was never there,” he said. “Even the P5 in Monaco I think last year is still not as fun as it should be.”

Just before the Singapore Grand Prix McLaren announced it would prematurely divorce from Honda (and therefore giving up one of only four constructors engines) and take on a customer Renault for the 2018 season. Had they not done so it’s likely they would have lost Alonso.

The change meant a loss of face on both sides. Honda found themselves relegated from being partners to one of F1’s top names, to being an engine supplier to Red Bull’s kindergarten squad. McLaren have forsaken the manufacturer backing which three years ago they insisted was essential to challenge for championships in the V6 hybrid turbo age.

Would all this have happened had McLaren’s not undergone a seismic change in its management team late last year? Would Ron Dennis have countenanced Alonso racing at Indianapolis or given up on Honda? Or, for that matter, launched an Esports campaign which rivalled the official Formula One offering?

Still, the litmus test of Brown’s new era at McLaren will be whether he can fill up some of the large empty spaces on the team’s sidepods. Getting back on the podium, something they failed to do in three years with Honda, will be a useful step in the right direction.

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28 comments on “Third year of Honda pain is one too many for McLaren”

  1. Being able to compare to Red Bull is the best gift it could do to itself. I can’t wait for 2018 first test!

  2. As long as the renault engine works I’m expecting mclaren be right there with red bull next season. Maybe not all the time as the engine switch is not ideal for mclaren but still more often than not. At least alonso. Vandoorne is a bit of a question mark. In worst case it is alonso versus both of the red bulls.

    And as long as the factory renault is comfortably behind them then mclaren and red bull can pull the occasional win but once renault starts to become competitive it will mean red bull and mclaren engines start to become outdated and special modes start appearing on the factory team engines. Unavailable for any customer team. Like ferrari and mercedes have been doing since 2014.

    Next year is the year mclaren needs to prove it is a front running team. It needs to match red bull. 2019 could be too late if the renault factory team becomes competitive as they will not want to race against teams using their own engine. My guess is that mclaren will finish 4th in constructors. Mark my words. Mercedes will win and together with ferrari they are untouchable. Red bull wins the 2nd division but hopefully mclaren gives red bull some stiff competition. Force india will take 5th as the winner of 3rd division.

    1. I wouldn’t count on Renault going all-out with its team just yet…

      a few years ago, there was, reportedly, some internal division at Renault whether it was worth it or not, from a marketing standpoint, to bring back its own team, with Ghosn being somewhat opposed to it. then the whole Red Bull debacle happened and Renault bought out Lotus (F1? Racing? god, those got confusing after a while…), presumably as a way to put pressure on RB, and theoretically, but not effectively, stripping them of their ‘works team’ status.

      now that they’ve got McLaren, Renault can alienate RB even further: they can have McLaren being their ‘winning team’ while keeping their ‘works team’ a solid, relatively low-cost marketing exercise in the midfield. Renault is not Mercedes nor Ferrari, they are not opposed to having slightly less exposure if it means much lower costs, à la Red Bull Infiniti (and, remember, the whole story with RB started because Horner believed Renault was not spending as much as other manufacturers to develop its engine, so money is a concern to them). this and the fact that Alonso is still at McLaren (Renault could’ve asked for him in exchanges for its engines as McLaren would still have Button, Vandoorne, and Norris, and probably would’ve accepted; instead they went with Sainz, who I rate highly, but it’s hardly a name to lead a works team right now) makes me think that McLaren is en route to becoming the de facto Renault works team, with RB going with Honda (if they come out good) or Aston.

      or, at least, I think this is ultimately Zak Brown’s play on signing Renault…

      1. It almost looks like everybody are doing short term deals to prepare each other for the next engine shakeup. Red bull has toro rosso checking the honda option for their possible move. Red bull are also thinking about aston martin or hoping maybe audi or porsche becomes interested. Mclaren went with renault but are possibly thinking of doing their own engines in future or looking at new deals. I doubt renault is for mclaren anything else than interrim solution. Ferrari made an alfa romeo deal with sauber but has a possibility to exit f1 if they don’t like the new rules.

        With these horrible engine regs the engine is so crucial part of performance that everybody are looking for options to get some kind of engine manufacturer support. The fight to get even a b spec engines is really hard and difficult as mclaren proved.

        The sad thing is when the music stops there won’t be enough engine manufacturers for every team and as such some teams will be permanently demoted to division 2 or 3 whereas the lucky one gets a chance to compete occasionally with the division 1 heavy hitters (mercedes and ferrari). For some teams engine regulation change can mean huge change in competitiveness (force india and williams) and as such they fully support these current engine regs because it gives them competitive edge. And in reality the division 1 places are limited to just ferrari and mercedes. Everybody else can just wait and hope the next next (next?) engine regs are actually good for racing. How long f1 can survive in this interrim mode is unknown.

        The even sadder thing is that both ferrari and mercedes are in the back rooms fighting to tooth and nail to prevent any kind of big engine regulation shakeup. They like winning and this super expensive engine formula suits them perfectly. They have total control over everything. And they make no secrets about it. Both mercedes and ferrari have threatened to quit unless they can guarantee they will keep winning. Good for ferrari and mercedes, bad for literally everybody else.

        1. With these horrible engine regs the engine is so crucial part of performance that everybody are looking for options to get some kind of engine manufacturer support.

          The engine should be a third of the ‘crucial parts’ to become successful (besides chassis and driver).
          And I’d argue that there is a bigger gap between various chassis (e.g. Mercedes vs Williams) and drivers (Hulkenberg to Palmer) than between PU manufacturers (look at top 3).

          1. Why the engine should be a third of the speed of the car? That will only lead to situation where the teams that have factory engine support will be competitive. F1 teams have rarely been engine manufacturers themselves. And it is bonkers if the teams are expected to pour hundreds and hundreds of millions into engine development just to be competitive. If honda can’t pull it off how much chance does a team like sauber have building their own engines? They will never be able to do it and as such they will never be competitive under these rules.

            F1 is chassis building championship. The engines come from engine manufacturers because the engine is one of the few parts teams can buy. The engine parity with V8s was amazing and proof of that is the best racing that f1 has had. Closest championships and most winners. The smaller the effect of the engine the better the racing. Everybody can build a great chassis.

          2. It’s called “motorsport” for a reason.

  3. Mclaren left hanging is an appropriate picture with the article. If the Renault reliability concerns are serious, then next year, this could again be a familiar picture.

  4. It will be interesting to see how Mclaren will fair against Red Bull now that these two teams will for the first time be using PUs from the same manufacturer.

  5. I have a feeling McLaren are in for a huge shock next year. Their chassis is nowhere as good as they claim. I think it is behind the top 4 teams and 5th is the best they can do next year. After all, they didn’t make a good chassis in 2013 or 2014. Their amazing chassis claims for last 3 years cannot be proven or disproven as they were the only ones using Honda. In fact, the only time Honda became competitive (mid-2016), McLaren admitted that their chassis was not entirely up to the mark.

    It is just too convenient for their chassis to be top notch only when their engine was at its weakest.

    1. There was talk by a commentator – I don’t remember who – that it’s entirely possible that McLaren cranked up the downforce on their car, since it’s then all too easy to blame any speed disadvantage on Honda, yet benefiting in the low and medium speed corners.

    2. And you know all this how Sumedh? That’s a pretty bold statement to make unless you are a McLaren employee. All the data points to this year’s chassis being very good, amongst the best. I’ll go one better, from the data I’d say it’s as good as Merc but not quite as good as RB or Ferrari. And as for your suggestion @phylyp, well these things are just conspiracy nonsense gossip. No professional team (emphasis on ‘team’ ie multiple members) would get involved in such a thing. No conspiracy theory ever survived contact with reality, and among all the so-called ‘theories’ flying around this has to be the lamest. What would have been the point? To motivate Honda? To embarrass Honda? These two companies have F1 DNA deeply ingrained in their existence and they operate at the very top level. Mistakes were made; it didn’t come off, and that’s a real shame for the companies, for the fans and for F1. These utterly baseless and stupid theories help no-one.

      1. What would have been the point? To motivate Honda? To embarrass Honda?

        Oh, nothing so petty. Simply to extract the best performance in the downforce-heavy sections of tracks, while compromising straight-line performance. Sort of like the Red Bull approach in 2010-2013 but dialed up to 11.

        No professional team (emphasis on ‘team’ ie multiple members) would get involved in such a thing.

        Not sure where you’re getting this conspiracy angle from, but all I (and the TV commentator) were alluding to was that this was a setup decision by the constructor – similar to how Mercedes and Williams trim their cars out differently.

  6. I didn’t like watching the McLarens struggling to even start a race the last three years but still I believe it was the worst possible timing ditching the Honda.
    When they started their partnership, McLaren insisted on producing a size-zero car where they had to fit bigger sized engines etc. Thats “unhealthy” and everybody knows it. We all saw the results.
    The second year Honda started from zero again, where McLaren realised they needed more space for the engine to run and cool and by the end of the year they were capable of some good results.
    But then they somehow decided to copy Mercedes, but never were they able to properly which resulted in what we saw this year.
    All in all I believe that both McLaren and Honda were lost in translation and could never work as a team when one was accusing the other. Had they left that behind I believe would start the new year in a very different way.

    1. I don’t believe that for a second. The size zero issues could be somewhat believable if honda’s issues were just about reliability but their engine was bad on all fronts. Horrible reliability, down on power, bad at harvesting energy, hard to drive, poor fuel economy. It was just a bad engine. Bad at everything. Honda just got everything wrong and were forced to play catch up copying ideas from everybody else because their own ideas were proven to be inadequate. If that is not honda’s own fault then what is?

      There are just no excuses. The honda engine was really bad engine. Probably the biggest failure in f1 in recent decades. At least the most expensive one. I don’t see it being a translation error. Whether it was middle management meddling, top down working culture making political decisions about technical details or honda just being too proud to let mclaren help we don’t know. Honda’s engine spokesperson made some pretty wild claims every year before the season start about how their engines will be the best so I’d guess it is possible it was a management issue after all. Maybe someone sometime writes a book about it.

  7. To be honest, apart from Alonso’s radio outbursts which were ‘unhelpful’ especially since they were paying his salary, I thought the McLaren/Honda relationship throughout was professional while tense at times. Compare that with the mudslinging at RBR/Renault and then be sure to understand why Renault are dumping their most successful engine partner to date, with the possible exception of Williams. I am gutted for both Mac & Honda. They both have a fine F1 heritage and I hope they can come back from this and work together again in the future.

  8. Here’s a question – what if Honda had not insisted on Alonso? And if McLaren went with either a PR and development-friendly option like Button, or someone junior like Lando Norris.

    Would we the audience have been disappointed at where McLaren found themselves from 2015 onwards, consigned ourselves to accepting them as a midfield team working their way up (similar to Haas)? And might have the toxic atmosphere and pressure to deliver have been lessened, giving the team and engine partner time to get their act together?

    1. @phylyp, the thing is, Hasegawa wasn’t shying away from that criticism – on the contrary, he said that Honda deserved it because they had failed to deliver a competitive package for three years and they hadn’t made the sort of progress they had hoped for.

      1. Ah, that’s interesting, anon.

    2. Without Alonso, McHonda wouldn’t have been looked at as a mid field team but a back marker. He garnered points as a few of the greats would which gave the impression Honda wasn’t a complete cluster@#$&.

      The “toxic” environment you mention was caused by Honda’s failure to supply an engine that was anywhere close to competitive speed wise and even more so one that wouldn’t break every other race. Would HAM, VET or VES have handled it as well?

      I can understand some of the negativity Alonso gets because of his personality but he is a star. To insinuate McHonda would in any way be better off without him is more than a stretch – it’s ludicrous!

  9. Well. I hope everyone knows it was a HONDA powered car that won the indy500 and the championship! I hope that!

  10. This certainly reminded me of one of those catastrophic failures of the 90s when an engine manufacturer would come into F1, and within few years leave after failing to deliver. It will be very interesting to see what both these parties do next year: with Alonso’s luck of late, I’m guessing Honda delivers Mercedes-type performance and the McLaren chassis will be absolute rubbish.

  11. As some others have said I would be quite surprised if McLaren turn out to be quite a quick as they have suggested they might be. I think the evidence suggests their chassis, this year at least, is a solid midfield competitor but I think there are bound to be teething issues with a totally new engine supplier. The Renault engine’s reliability has been quite an issue this year as well.

    I expect they are going to be fighting in the midfield pack with the likes of Force India, the Renault team and Williams. I would be surprised but delighted, if Alonso was on the podium anytime soon. Maybe if things go really well, towards the end of the season.

  12. i hope mclaren it will be better next year

  13. Is Fernando Alonso under a curse?

  14. I fell sad that Honda and McLaren have decided to end their contract, but the performance by both parties was below expectations. As suggested, I don’t think it’s right to place all the blame upon Honda because they had to operate within a political performance impairing envelop. Also, we don’t know how influential Alonso was in the poor performance of the McLaren-Honda car. As noted in the article, “… and at times even seemed to have parked a healthy car.” If this is true, then the reliability of the McLaren-Honda car was actually better than the results show, and McLaren should take the blame for those retirements, and not blame Honda.
    When you compare the retirements and did not starts for McLaren-Honda this year, 15, with that of Red Bull Racing, 13, and Scuderia Toro Rosso, 12, the performance is obviously worse, but not significantly worse.
    My hope is STR-Honda outperform McLaren-Renault next year.

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