The 2018 season marks 20 years since McLaren last won a constructors’ championship and ten since the last McLaren drivers’ champion. Five years have passed since they last won a race.
Under Ron Dennis the team was famed for two things: Fastidious attention to detail and, at their peak, unprecedented success.
But as the team’s new management struggles to make progress following a costly divorce from Honda, @DieterRencken argues McLaren needs to regain its focus on F1.Formula 1 teams – including Ferrari – were judged, the Surrey-based team has yet to win a constructors’ championship this millennium.
Most agonisingly for the team, McLaren last tasted grand prix victory five years and over 100 races ago. Adding insult to injury, consider that during the first season of hybrid engines, fellow Mercedes customers Williams took six podiums and placed third in the classification to McLaren’s fifth. Force India, also with Mercedes, scored a podium and placed sixth on a budget half the size.
At the time McLaren suggested it may not have received engine parity, but doubters questioned why the three-pointed star would run various engine specifications when it had its hands full getting to grips with F1’s new-fangled hybrid power units. As subsequent seasons unravelled, so McLaren grew increasingly adroit at pointing fingers in every direction except, saliently, internally.
Its 2015 switch to Honda, restoring the team to works status, seemingly could not come soon enough.
The first Japanese hybrids proved pitifully slow and unreliable, but the pace of development was complicated by McLaren’s “size zero” chassis that forced Honda to squeeze immature technology into an uncompromisingly tight design. After modest progress in 2016 the project took a great leap backwards the following year, which was later immortalised in the Grand Prix Driver documentary. The once-iconic McLaren-Honda partnership unravelled. McLaren claimed its chassis was cutting-edge design, let down by Honda’s hardware.
Last year, after McLaren’s board had forced out Ron Dennis – who had led McLaren to record-setting heights during the eighties before his record was tarnished by the Gates ‘Spy’ (2007) and ‘Lie’ (2009) – McLaren executives persuaded majority owners Sheik Mohammed of Bahrain and Saudi entrepreneur Mansour Ojjeh to dump Honda power in favour of Renault engines.
The pay-off? “A return to regular podiums,” promised new executive director Zak Brown, whose extramural activities include the chairmanship of a motorsport media group and a private sports racing team. The decision, though, cost McLaren dearly: Not only did Honda supply free engines, but contributed significantly to McLaren’s budget, and covered Fernando Alonso’s stipend.
The switch meant leasing customer Renault engines at the going rate, namely £18m plus a re-engineering programme; Honda also demanded a severance package, said to be £20m annually through to end-2020. Add in the loss of Honda’s commercial package (estimated at £60m per season) and Alonso’s earnings (£30m), and the financial swing borders on half a billion dollars over three years.
This reckons without the debilitating loss of sponsors and reduction in McLaren’s F1’s revenues since 2014 – potentially worth another quarter of a billion dollars – which Honda allegedly indemnified McLaren against while the contract was in force. These are, of course, worst-case numbers. But the depth of the dilemma is vividly illustrated by the MCL33’s bare flanks and pre-bonus annual F1 income which is at least £25m shy of McLaren’s natural grid peer, Red Bull.
However overlooked was that, in order to achieve the promised “return to podiums”, McLaren would need to beat four of the top six cars: some permutation of Mercedes, Ferraris and Red Bulls. Given that three teams have each won two of the six races so far – the last-named, significantly, with Renault power – while McLaren has failed to even get a whiff of a podium in six races, shows the team has fallen well short.
Four races in, the word in the Baku paddock was that chief technical officer Tim Goss had been moved aside – he has since left the team after three decades’ service. Meanwhile Alonso’s car proved faster down Baku’s long straights after losing a chunk of floor in a first-lap accident. Clearly, McLaren had gotten its drag-to-downforce ratios horribly wrong, with predictable (lack of) results.
“Our top speed is not the best one because we are bottom in the ranking,” racing director Eric Boullier, the man ultimately charged with the team’s performance, admitted in Shanghai. “But it’s not the only [issue], it’s not as simple as this. Were it just a question of drag, it would be easy to fix. We have to address fundamentally all aspects of the car to make sure we know we are where we should be.
“We have the same engine as Renault and Red Bull and we are behind. There is no hiding, nothing else than [that] fact,” he added.
In Monaco last year, for example, McLaren’s best lap time was 1.48% slower than the best of the weekend; this year it was 1.84% slower. By contrast, Red Bull’s 2017 deficit was 0.44%, whereas this year the team was fastest in every session and walked the race. To compound comparisons, a Red Bull one-two was on the cards had Max Verstappen not crashed during Saturday practice.
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Crucially, the swap to Renault power exposes McLaren to direct comparisons with Red Bull Racing, whose chassis is reckoned to be the class of the grid, powered by the same power units, and here the true extent of McLaren’s shortcomings become clear.
Asked pre-season whether he was concerned about going head-to-head against Red Bull, Brown was upbeat. “We only want to hide if we’re nine-tenths (of a second per lap) off Red Bull,” he said, adding, “We’re a racing team, the second-most successful in terms of race wins, and we welcome competition.”
On that basis some hiding is called for: In Monaco the team was 1.3 seconds off the pace of pole-sitter, Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo, powered by the same engine.
Asked by RaceFans how he felt about the lap time shortfall, Alonso said, “Disappointed in a way because we have the same power unit, and we should be at that level. But at the same time we knew from very early in the year that we are not yet at that level – but we will try to be as soon as possible.”
In the race the Spaniard retired with gearbox troubles, as had team-mate Stoffel Vandoorne a fortnight previously in Spain. Obviously McLaren’s woes are not restricted purely to chassis performance.
Indeed, by other metrics McLaren has regressed. Meanwhile Toro Rosso, which swapped Renault for Honda, advanced – scoring a magnificent fourth in Bahrain. True, after the split, the Japanese company had put in major efforts to regain credibility – having been particularly stung by Alonso’s constant criticism – but comparisons make for much discomfort.
During pre-season testing STR posted the third-highest number of laps, while McLaren appeared with increasingly larger holes butchered into its bodywork after cooling proved inadequate. Clearly the team’s cooling-to-drag calculations were out of kilter, which robbed the team of development time.
So, what led to the downfall of this once mighty colossus? As with all catastrophes, there is no single cause, so there is no easy fix. The reality, though, is that McLaren is no longer the racing machine it once was. Distractions such as the expanding road car and advanced technologies activities, combined with internal upheavals and a dysfunctional matrix management structure, all contributed to a lack of executive focus.
The matrix structure, copied from the aerospace industry, was introduced shortly after McLaren won its last constructors’ title. The intention was to ensure that the loss of a key person would not impact on the overall team. Responsibility for key activities is shared, goes the theory – which, though, means no individuals carry the can when things go wrong. McLaren’s downward spiral was aided and abetted by this no-blame culture.
Although Brown and Boullier are currently busy with restructuring the team, changing a company culture created over a period of two decades has proven to be the biggest challenge, and could take up to five years to dismantle, and not without much bloodletting. By then McLaren’s shareholders could well have burnt through a billion bucks, if not lost their patience.
In short, McLaren has evidently forgotten how to win, and many wonder whether it still has the fervent desire to throw its heart and soul into reaching the top step of the podium – let alone to win championships – that was once its hallmark. Yet, while the team burns, management fiddles about with talk of Indianapolis and Le Mans, pointing to McLaren’s pedigree in such series.
However, they conveniently overlook the historic impact of such diversionary forays into other activities on McLaren’s F1 record. In fact, a compelling case could be made that the root cause of McLaren’s current malaise lies not in its choice of engine suppliers past or presence, but in a gradual shift of executive focus away from the company’s core activity, namely grand prix racing.
To illustrate just how much McLaren has changed in a decade, consider a presentation by Dennis to a motorsport business forum at the start of the 2008 season, McLaren’s last championship year. In typical ‘Ronspeak” he defined F1:
“A Formula 1 car exists to win grands prix. To cover 305 kilometres, or 190 miles, in as short a time as possible. It’s the expression of the harnessing of the unstinting efforts of upwards of 1,000 utterly focused experts – efforts that are then distilled into 18 motor races driven by two equally focused, equally expert, individuals. It’s a macroscopic effort with a microscopic result, rapidly developed. It’s big-picture thinking, and attention to detail.”
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McLaren’s multitasking problem
After McLaren scored its maiden grand prix victory in 1968, the team added a trio of wins before concentrating on winning the CanAm sports car series. It did so in dominant style, the death of the team’s founder Bruce McLaren in 1970 notwithstanding. However, its F1 record suffered, and only after CanAm collapsed in 1973 did McLaren again focus on winning in F1 – and promptly won the 1974 title.
Thereafter McLaren diversified into Indianapolis, winning the hallowed 500 in 1974/6. Although James Hunt took the 1976 title, Niki Lauda’s fiery Nürburgring crash undoubtedly swung matters his way. Thereafter, as McLaren embraced the 500, so F1 results suffered, so much so that Marlboro massaged a merger of McLaren with Ron Dennis’s Project 4 operation.
Numerous further examples of lost focus abound in McLaren’s history: During the early nineties McLaren’s attention turned to its sublime F1 road car, which went into limited production for three years from 1993, also winning Le Mans in 1995. The company simultaneously dabbled with an ultimately aborted land speed record project. Between 1994 and 1996 McLaren failed to win a grand prix, scoring but six third places.
In 1997 McLaren ceased all peripheral activities, and immediately returned to its winning ways, scoring titles in 1998-9. Then, though, attention turned to building the Mercedes SLR-McLaren with its then-engine partner and shareholder, and immediately the team was overshadowed by Ferrari and Renault. Once production of the sports car ceased, the 2008 title followed in dramatic style.
In 2010 McLaren announced plans for a return to sports car manufacturing, with the MP4-12C launched as a low-volume Ferrari/Porsche challenger in late 2011. McLaren won its last grand prix the following season.
McLaren, for all its strengths, is obviously unable to multi-task. Can the company build title-winning F1 cars? Emphatically. Le Mans winners? Of course. CanAm and Indianapolis winners? No doubt. Produce road cars able to consistently challenge Ferrari and Porsche? Absolutely.
Can McLaren, though, multi-task? Obviously not, as the team’s history relates. The lesson is clear: until McLaren once again focuses on F1 it is unlikely to return to its previous winning ways…
Follow Dieter on Twitter: @RacingLines
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