Fernando Alonso, McLaren, Yas Marina, 2018

McLaren discover dropping Honda was no cure-all

2018 F1 season review: McLaren

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After splitting from Honda, McLaren face a long trek back to the front of the field. Their first season with customer Renault power units should just how far they have to go.

That wasn’t necessarily how it appeared when Fernando Alonso took the chequered flag at the season-opening race in fifth position. “Now we can fight” he told the team on the radio, a remark clearly intend to draw attention to the fact they had just equalled their best result from three years with Honda power in their first race with Renault.

But that proved the high watermark of the team’s season. Alonso continued to amass points in the early races, usually backed up by Stoffel Vandoorne, but things began to go awry when the championship returned to Europe.

By now the team discovered a fundamental shortcoming in the MCL33’s aerodynamic philosophy. Worryingly, it was producing less downforce than its predecessor, yet also had a tendency towards high-drag which was sapping its performance on the straights. A radical new nose introduced in Spain did not cure the problem.

Reliability was lacking too – the team suffered a four-race run of technical problems from Spain to Monaco. Having led the ‘midfield championship’ over the opening races, Alonso slipped down the order.

McLaren F1 team budget 2018
McLaren F1 team budget 2018
Zak Brown, who joined the team at the end of 2016, was put in change of McLaren Racing in April. He began a major shake-up of the team’s upper management.

Racing director Eric Boullier was shown the door and Gil de Ferran appointed as sporting director. Toro Rosso’s James Key has been hired as technical director to replace Matt Morris, but won’t arrive until some time next year. The matrix management structure, put in place during the Ron Dennis/Martin Whitmarsh years, is gradually being dismantled.

While these changes bed in, the team largely had to cope with what it had for 2018. However work on the MCL33 did not stop at round five, Brown insisted.

“We did continue to develop until about 15 races into the year, I would say the US Grand Prix or thereabouts,” he said. “Some of the reports that we stopped in Spain were as Mr Trump would say was ‘fake news’.”

McLaren team stats 2018

Best race result (number) 5 (1)
Best grid position (number) 7 (1)
Non-classifications (technical/other) 8 (6/2)
Laps completed (% of total) 2,185 (86.3%)
Laps led (% of total) 0 (0%)
Championship position (2017) 7 (9)
Championship points (2017) 62 (30)
Pit stop performance ranking 5

However the team did devote practice time, which would ordinarily have been spent on race weekend performance, to working out where it had gone wrong with this year’s car. Vandoorne’s chassis developed a mystery loss of downforce which was only solved when his car was replaced. He still struggled to deliver on the nascent talent which had been obvious in his junior career, however.

Towards the end of the season even Alonso’s bravura performance were rarely rewarded with points. While he chose to exit at the end of the season, Vandoorne was pushed, and the team has an all-new line-up of Carlos Sainz Jnr and another hotly-tripped rookie, Lando Norris, for 2019.

The team’s final finishing position of sixth is somewhat flattered by Force India’s legal troubles. It took just 10 points from the final nine races.

“This has obviously been a difficult season,” Brown admitted. “I think we’re all glad it’s over. It’s not one I think we’ll look back on with fond memories.

“But that being said I think we learned a lot this year and I think we’re taking those learning and will ultimately in the long-term be a better team because of it.”

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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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39 comments on “McLaren discover dropping Honda was no cure-all”

  1. It is widely claimed that Alonso is one of if not the most “complete” drivers to have graced F1. Why was he not able to tell McLaren that their chassis was a dog?

    1. Because its a myth that the drivers setup and develop the cars. They give their inputs and then an army of engineers make use of it.

      If the car is stable and easy to drive but slow its very easy for the driver to imagine its the engine thats at fault.

    2. @gnosticbrian, if it is anything like the experience that Kubica says Sirotkin and Stroll had at Williams, it could well be that the designers were initially resistant to the suggestion that the car was flawed.

      With the FW41, both Stroll and Sirotkin realised pretty much as soon as they drove the car in the first pre-season test that the car was a disaster but, even with Kubica then chipping in and saying the same thing as Sirotkin and Stroll, the designers refused to listen to their drivers and insisted that the FW41 was a good car. It was only when they finally started to see how it performed in the first set of flyaway races that they finally began to accept that the car was fundamentally flawed, by which point they were committed to that mistake and had to live with it.

      It is entirely possible that McLaren might have taken the same approach, especially if, on first sight, they did not realise that the car lacked the development potential that they thought it initially had. The car does not seem to have had a particularly obvious handling imbalance when first launched, and if you initially believed that the car had a reasonable amount of development potential, you might well not have initially been too concerned.

      1. Worse.. They even believed last year they had the best chassis on the grid. Completely delusional still…

      2. Insightful comment, thank you anon.

      3. anon – One might understand experienced engineers doubting the word of young, inexperienced drivers but Nando is neither young nor inexperienced; far from it. Some drivers [Lauda, Senna, Schumacher for example] appear to inspire their teams to ever greater heights; others seem to sow dissent and division.

        Every team produces a dog from time to time. And I agree that engineers can be reluctant to acknowledge that they have gone down a cul-de-sac; “just one more tweak and we have a winner…”. But when did McLaren last produce a good chassis? A driver of Nando’s supposed talent should be able to distinguish between a poor and a good chassis and command respect from the engineers for his opinion.

        1. They had the best chassis when Lewis last drove for them, since then it has been rubbish (not taking a shot at Lewis as his particular car and crew was terribly unreliable that year)

          1. I don’t know about when he was at Renault, but while at Ferrari Alonso himself admitted that Massa did pretty much all the setup & development work/evaluation. Either Alonso doesn’t like doing it much, or it’s not generally his forte: I’ve also heard praise of his ability to instinctively drive around fundamental problems… praise sprinkled with mild criticism on his feedback (general complaining instead of identifying the problem & advising the garage on a remedy) so I’ve always leaned more towards the latter reasoning, personally. At McLaren with Lewis it was De La Rosa & Lewis who did the lions share as well. Lewis has always been meticulous about his car setup though. I remember at McLaren, per his request they built him several master cylinders of different sizes to trial so he could get the perfect pedal feel to better modulate his brakes, while Alonso was complaining & blackmailing.

        2. @gnosticbrian

          Nicely put.

          McLaren ended 2012 with arguably the faster car that year, but being McLaren, rather than continue along the same path chose to adopt a different philosophy in 2013 and it was downhill from there.

          1. They decided to change the philosophy of their car midway through 2012, when they face massive challenge to develop the car. It’s easy to mock them now, but Witmarch said in an interview that the team was devided between keeping working on the 2012 or focusing on next year’s car. In the end they ended up with the fastest car, but had already committed to a new car philosophy for the following year.

            Ironically, as far as I remember, they did the same in 2013: in the midst of poor results, some in the team suggested to revert to the 2012 chassis. Witmarch later admitted to have seriously considered the possibility, to finally keep the new chassis. Until now, they never fully recovered from those times.

        3. @gnosticbrian, in those instances though, some of the drivers that you list weren’t necessarily the best drivers at identifying a particular fault though.

          In the case of Schumacher, for example, he would sometimes even become something of a hindrance to the team because he would be unconsciously driving around a particular issue and therefore not realise that it was there, due to the fact that he would have unconsciously adapted his driving style to get around that problems.

          In the article that Benson produced about Alonso, where he interviewed Anrea Stella, Stella did compare the traits of Schumacher and Alonso when it came to set up work. It’s quite an interesting comparison, because he did suggest that, in some ways, Alonso’s ability to analyse the behaviour of the car and the set up could sometimes be superior to that of Schumacher, as sometimes Schumacher’s feedback would be almost a bit too detailed, to the point where sometimes the most important details would be lost amongst less important detail.

          He also noted that, in the case of Schumacher, he had a tendency to drive a car up to and over the limit, then to come back down towards the limit of performance. In particular, his ability to accommodate oversteer was unmatched with any driver, but it did mean that, in some circumstances, that strength could then become a weakness, such as when the set up was so biased towards oversteer that it resulted in excessive rear tyre wear and would compromise his performance over a race stint (even if it might be a fraction quicker over a single lap).

          In the case of Alonso, it seems that his approach was to work from within the limit of performance up to that limit in a more measured way, which in some ways was actually more useful for the engineers when it came to optimising the set up of the car.

          As an aside, part of the reason for bringing up Sirotkin is that, whilst he might have been a rookie, it seems he was also one of the most technically gifted drivers that Williams have ever had driving for them.

          Asides from the fact that he was recorded as setting a new benchmark in the driver technical test that Williams have, his university degree was in vehicle dynamics and his dissertation on the kinematics and set up of a racing car. In terms of technical knowledge, therefore, Sirotkin was no fool – indeed, I am aware from a reporter in the GP2 paddock that Sirotkin was held in extremely high regard in that area in GP2 – and he was probably more capable of holding his own with his engineers than most drivers in the paddock when it came to set up and analysing the behaviour of the car.

          That said, I do also agree with the point of view that @rethla has, which is the fact that there is a tendency of the public to give greater priority to the point of view of the driver than is really warranted, especially when it comes to the design of the cars.

          Now, for set up work, yes, the input of the driver will have more immediate use, though only if they are able to identify where exactly the issue may be starting. Stella noted that quite a lot of drivers, even very experienced and skilled drivers, could have a problem – let’s say the problem was mid corner understeer – and might tend to develop a bit of tunnel vision, trying to solve that problem by itself without considering how that might impact on the behaviour of the car in other phases of the corner, so they might end up either chasing a chimera or end up making the overall behaviour of the car worse by focussing on one particular aspect.

          However, in terms of the longer term development of the car, driver feedback is rather lower on the list than you probably think. In terms of long term development, that is really driven by the overall philosophy and design language that a designer will want, and that can sometimes even directly conflict with what a driver might be saying – indeed, there have been quite a few recent instances of a team developing a car in a direction that the drivers might have heavily objected to at the time, only for them to come round to the decision later in the season when it turns out to have paid off.

          A good example of that would be with Red Bull’s 2012 car, where their initial attempts to develop what was termed the “coanda exhaust” received very negative feedback from Vettel – to the point where the team had to bring the pre-season bodywork package without the coanda style exhaust to China because he thought that the coanda style exhaust was a major mistake and that the team was going in the wrong direction by trying to develop it.

          In that case though, Newey continued with the development of the coanda style exhaust despite Vettel’s objections, and in the long term that decision was vindicated as Vettel eventually came round to approving of the design – but, had Red Bull listened to Vettel’s original feedback and removed that from the car, it probably would have hurt the development of that car and might well have resulted in the team losing the WDC that year to Alonso.

      4. @Anon

        Alonso was at McLaren for 4 years and in that time the car has gotten progressively worse. He was their lead driver, the team was built around him. You trying to tell us that the feedback and input he gave to the engineers weren’t crap and in truth he’s incapable of helping to develop a race winning car?

        When he left Ferrari at the end of 2014, the Ferrari was a crap car, which finished 4th in the standings, their worse position since the start of the 2000 era.

        Simple fact is, he like Jenson, despite all the praise they receive, are both horrible at helping to develop a proper race winning car.

        1. KGN11 – I agree with your analysis.

          Car development and fine tuning are essential tools in a “complete” driver’s skill set. The top drivers are always looking to improve their cars.

    3. @gnosticbrian

      because finicky fans and media knock him down when he so much as even hinted at it at Ferrari

    4. I doubt he can help develop a car. He is quick with what they give him, but can not give the input to make it better.
      All teams he has driven in stagnated in development or even went backward in development.

      Also he has a toxic personality, so he doesn’t motivate.

    5. @gnosticbrian after reading Newey’s book, you realize that drivers can give pointers which good engineers can make good use, but drivers are not engineers. They can give information but can’t work out how to fix it. Think about Senna with the 94 Williams, he kept telling the engineers the car behaved weirdly, and it took them a long while to fix it for Damon (even developing a B-spec in the meantime).

      I think drivers being “developers” is a myth coming the days of Gurney, Brabham or McLaren, when they actually were developers. From then on, drivers have been only drivers, except for Jabouille and few others. They give inputs, sure, but they drive what they have.

      I’ve also read somewhere, can’t remember where, that “naturally talented drivers” cope with the flaws on their cars so they change their approach if a car understeers or oversteers for instance, extracting performance anyway which for an engineering point of view it’s not what you want, since you want to put the variables in the car, not the driver. I think it was Scalabroni tweeting about it, saying that Alonso needed a Fisichella, in the same way Hamilton needed a Rosberg or Vettel needed a Webber. Not saying I agree with the examples, but it does have some logic…

      1. The FW16 was a passively sprung derivative of the actively sprung FW15. It had a very narrow set up window and was overly sensitive to front wing ride height. Senna never felt physically comfortable in the car [Newey has always favoured aerodynamics over driver comfort].

        Gerhard Berger has said that Senna told him before Imola: “We are now finally aware of the problem with this car and in two or three weeks from now the problems should be solved.” And Hill proved this to be correct; winning six of the twelve post-Monaco races and coming second in four others.

  2. I’m sure he did every chance he got. He just didn’t know why, and neither did the team. The car looked good, with no obvious extra crap on it to create drag, the new front wing didn’t help, so the answer must be in the way the air moved through the cars ducts and radiators and underneath. Now that the season is over, they will do a thorough forensic analysis to determine what the actual issue was, and hope its not already incorporated in the 2019 chassis.

    1. That’s why the windtunnel is invented.

  3. What a terrible season McLaren endured, to me it was even worst then last year. Last year they were on an upwards trend and finished the season on par with Renault and force India. This season it was the opposite they started strong (not as strong as they hoped) and finished almost last. And if it weren’t for Alonso probably the best driver ever of bad cars, they would be even worst

    1. Yes, what’s ironic are the unrealistic goals they set for themselves, like alonso who said, australia will be the lowest point; aside from some luck with haas and verstappen’s problems, they were still quite competitive, they could hold off red bulls in australia, not any more as the season progressed.

      And also saying next target was catching red bull, ehm, red bull was competitive with ferrari and merc from the start in race pace, I always said, first think about beating renault on merit, then think about red bull, see the result of their optimistic goals.

  4. Serves them right for belittling Honda at every opportunity for 3 years.

    However, now that they have been punished, it’s time McLaren develop and reach where they belong, at the top or near the top of F1 :)

  5. the only team that still uses those fins that were a trend back in ’12 or ’13.
    by far the less complex bargeboards on the sides of the cockpit too. They are completely outdeveloped by everyone else.

    there was clearly something wrong when Alonso catched Vettel in China and had to make the pass out of a DRS zone because he could not get close enough to overtake even with the DRS open. The same thing that plagued them in the Honda era persisted with a different PU. Top speeds much slower than others.

    the only people happy with the change were the mechanics that finally got a break from working on changing engine parts between almost every session for 3 years.

    1. That would be the Honda engineers and they are still changing those parts but in another garage.

      1. engineers changing parts and getting under the car? yeah, right…

        1. Call them whatever you want.

          1. there is a big difference between mechanics and engineers you know…

          2. Not really but i know what you mean.

  6. Some of the reports that we stopped in Spain were as Mr Trump would say was ‘fake news’.

    What Trump calls ‘fake news’ is mostly factual and correct; it just doesn’t fit his preferred storyline ;)

    1. If you’re quoting Trump, then you’re in more trouble than previously thought.


  7. That Picture is 👌🏻Keith

  8. ”as Mr Trump would say was ‘fake news’” – LOL.
    Now onto the real point, though:
    Terrible season. I was expecting more from them, but ultimately they lost out to Haas and were struggling with RPF1 for most of the latter half of the season and even Sauber occasionally.

  9. Johan Tolemans
    24th December 2018, 21:36

    All their top talent left in 2017, bar some that left in 2018, after their last real manager left. So even if the owners of the now-empty shell that was once McLaren realized the car was crap, there was nothing they could do about it this season. The bad news is that they burnt through the talented driver that said previous manager raised, there is no improved car in sight and on top of it all they still seem to believe in Alonso. I would say no improvement can be realistically expected for the next 5 years.

  10. when you have several teams that run the same/similar engine, it’s easy to see where your teams chassis stacks up.

    The stop watch & speed trap data reveals all.

    McLaren sadly & simply ignored the data.

  11. They needed to drop Honda and a £100m yearly in finance to figure that out? All they had to do was go back to 2013.

    1. Yeah, that’s a good point. Their self-assessment of where they stood with Mercedes power in 2014 should in itself have been a cautionary tale that their problems in 2015 and beyond would not be solely limited to the PU.

  12. After a good first four races, it all went downhill…

  13. Weird how the discussion here is so much about Alonso and drivers when it’s beyond obvious that it’s much more about other parts of the team. I would suggest it’s as much about Brown as anybody. We hear of Honda saying how communication is much better now at Toro Rosso, which is as strong a message as you’ll get from the polite Japanese that the relationship with McLaren sucked, and even if it was Boullier telling them to “just go and fix it for godssake”, it was still Brown’s responsibility to oversee partner relations. In my mind, the best fix for McLaren is to get Whitmarsh back. Not only is he very good at people relations and knows the team and F1 workings as good as anybody, he will be very hungry and motivated to show success after being ousted by Dennis. He has already come out in the media to say he is ready to take on the job during the staff ‘rebellion’.

    1. @balue McLaren are in this mess because of Whitmarsh.. It’s also about Alonso cause he droves four years for McLaren and couldn’t obviously not help to get the car to the front, i personally never rated Alonso that much, especially in 2012 where he had a lucky 43 points lead and still managed to loose the WDC despite there where seven races left and cause i believed all these fake praises where to keep Alonso happy. So called “most complete” driver nonsense

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