McLaren-Renault, Red Bull, and Toro-Rosso Honda
Firstly, lets start with the obvious: the McLaren-Honda engine partnership was nothing short of a disaster. Not only was it bad for both McLaren and Honda's reputation, but it was also detrimental for Formula One as a whole. It drove the second most successful team in history to new lows, race after race, causing them to only earn a pittance in prize money and the once great relationship between McLaren and Honda to be torn apart. This all happened in a time where McLaren had arguably the best driver line up on the grid, with Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso, but their talent was wasted on trying to eek out performance from a car that was just not up to the job. It is easy to come to the conclusion that this drove Jenson Button to retirement, and what also forced long-time boss Ron Dennis out of his own team. From this alone, it would appear a no-brainer to escape from the Honda deal, but after analysing all of the factors, was it the correct thing to do?
Was Renault the only option for McLaren?
To put it simply, no, Renault were not the only option for McLaren. It was rumoured in June this year that McLaren had managed to secure a deal with Mercedes for the 2018 season, with the Daily Mail publishing an article with the headline: 'McLaren to ditch hapless Honda engines and switch to Mercedes next season in bid to keep Fernando Alonso '. To McLaren fans all around the world, this sounded like amazing news, and that the cock-up that was the McLaren-Honda partnership would finally be over, and McLaren could return to winning ways next season.
However, as we all now know, the McLaren-Mercedes partnership was never to be rekindled. This meant that the only upgrade in performance would be to go with Renault. However, this would be a risky choice, as both Ricciardo and Verstapppen will tell you, the Renault engines aren't the best either. However, this would mean that McLaren, whilst not having the best engine on the grid, could end up with performance that could on occasion, challenge for the victories and podiums that the team is so desperately craving. It would also mean that their star driver, Fernando Alonso, would be a lot more willing to sign a new contract, and not driven to retirement as Jenson Button was this time last year.
The other option, although displeasing for fans of the team and no doubt the shareholders, would be to stick with Honda and wait for them to come good. Given Honda's current state of affairs, this may seem like a ridiculous option, but when the money that Honda puts into the team is considered, it becomes more and more plausible. Honda reportedly pay half of the drivers salaries (given that Alonso is rumoured to be on £25.5 million per year, that's quite a hefty amount), as well as providing free engines which brings Honda's investment to McLaren alone to around £100 million per year. This would clearly be a hell of a lot of money to lose for any team, and if you factor in how much money Honda is reportedly putting into the development of their engine, then it appears to be inevitable that they must be able to get the engine to come good at some point.
So why did McLaren choose Renault?
McLaren have chosen Renault for one reason, and that it that they need good, consistent results. The relationship with Honda has reached a point where McLaren just cannot keep waiting for Honda to come good, as they are losing sponsors, prize money, fans and respect in the Formula One paddock.
This is amplified by the fact that McLaren have a very rich heritage, full of good results and with this comes high expectations. It may not sound like a good deal to most people, especially as they are changing from the worst engine in Formula One to the second worst, but the deal does have a silver lining. It will mean that instead of fighting to be in the final parts of qualifying, they could be fighting for the top three and on some circuits, even the pole position, as Red Bull have shown this season. Of course this is still not quite where McLaren wants to be, but it is a huge step forwards, and will give them chances to work with Renault and possibly other manufactures in order to return to winning ways when the engine regulations change in 2021.
As the team have divorced Honda, you would have thought that they would suffer greatly now that they are effectively £100 million a year down, but no. They believe that they can earn back that money from an increased amount of prize money due to the better results, and the increased money from new sponsors that are willing to come on board due to the better results and overall better reputation of the team. Also, a point to consider is the fact that they will have complete parity with Renault and Red Bull in terms of upgrades to the engine, so for the first time in three years, McLaren will be on a level pegging field with some of Formula One's biggest teams.
Red Bull have shown what they can do with a slightly under-powered Renault engine, now it's your turn, McLaren.
How has this benefited Renault?
As McLaren boss Zak Brown put it, “We’re a great team, McLaren has shown the ability to win races and championships," he told Sky Sports. "But I think several other teams enjoy seeing us where we are today. He goes on to add: “They fear we can go back to being a threat, a fear which is understandable.”
This statement, as I'm sure that many of you will agree, is one hundred per cent true. Mercedes and Ferrari both will not supply a team such as McLaren, whose budget is similar to their's, to have engines capable of challenging them for race wins. This raises the obvious question, why would Renault be so willing to supply McLaren?
Well, the answer is simple: Renault need their engines to be developed and to be in the spotlight, and McLaren are more able to provide that for them than the Red Bull B-team, Toro Rosso. This becomes more important when you consider that Renault's relationship with Red Bull seems to be nearing its end, with reports suggesting that 2018 will be the final year of the partnership.
Also, you have to factor in the driver situation. Renault, like all teams on the grid want a driver pairing that is as strong as it can possibly be so that the teams points haul and prize money is as large as possible come the end of the season. This is where their current line up present a problem: up until the engine deals were signed, Nico Hulkenberg had scored all of Renault's championship points, with the ever-unlucky Jolyon Palmer consistently breaking down, crashing and finishing just outside of the points (usually in 11th!).
So, as payment for terminating the engine contract with Toro Rosso (I'll get to that part), Red Bull agreed to loan the rising talent, Carlos Sainz Jr to Renault in place of Palmer on a one year deal. This will potentially mean that Renault will be a regular presence in the top ten, which will as I have explained, increase their prize money and due to this, ultimately speed up the development of the car and the engine so that they can also return to winning ways in the near future.
Why would Toro-Rosso sign a deal with Honda?
At first, this may not make sense given the Honda engine's performance and reputation, but there are good reasons to back up this deal.
First of all, throughout the team's eleven year history, they have always been seen and treated as a Red Bull B-Team, in the sport purely to test the up-and-coming Red Bull junior drivers. The Honda deal can be seen as a way for Toro-Rosso to separate themselves from the main Red Bull team, and to become a team in their own right. This is partly due to the investment that is expected from Honda, which will be in the same sort of region as it was for McLaren (however, the driver salaries will be less, which could mean more investment into the team instead). This is further supported by the fact that Honda have publicly said that: "It is our goal to overcome this tough challenge and get back to fighting with the frontrunners of the sport. They went on to say: "Our spirit, Honda's spirit, is going to come back and for next year our goal is to fight for the top three at the front of the grid."
This shows that Toro Rosso would like more than ever to establish themselves as frontrunners of the sport, as it is a large risk to take, especially when you consider the implications it could have to the amount of prize money they receive, as they are not doing badly with their current supply of Renault engines. However, their actions show that they are willing to take that risk if it will propel them up the field, even if it may compromise the results of Red Bull.
Surely Red Bull lose out in this deal?
It would appear that Red Bull are losing out in this deal, not just Honda. This is because they have lost a potential star of the future to Renault (even if it is only a loan), and they have potentially made their junior team, Toro-Rosso, in which they have a very large investment into, lose a lot of money in prize money for the forthcoming seasons.
However, with their partnership with Renault rumoured to be falling apart, it means that they can use Toro Rosso as guinea pigs in order to test the abilities of the Honda engine for a possible engine deal for the 2019 season onwards. This is an advantage as there is no way that Mercedes or Ferrari would ever supply Red Bull as they have previously found out, so it provides them a way to be effectively a works team for Honda when they inevitably come good.
It also means that they can insert their junior driver Pierre Gasly into a race seat with Toro Rosso, filling the space left by Sainz. This is important because the driver market at the end of 2018 is rumoured to be wide open, with many drivers, including Ricciardo and Verstappen out of contract. This means that they can give Gasly a chance to develop as a driver, and in the event that a space opens up at Red Bull, then he will be ready to fill the void.
Yes, even Honda doesn't lose everything in these deals...
It is easy to conclude that Honda loses the most in this mega-engine deal, but there is an advantage of this situation for them. This is because ever since the Mclaren-Honda deal was announced, they have been in the limelight and under constant scrutiny from the press and fans of the sport. However, this new deal with Toro-Rosso means that they can continue to develop their engine with a well respected team, but with a team that isn't constantly under the spotlight, and a team who doesnt have the same level of expectations that McLaren had of the partnership. Under less pressure, but the same investment, it will be interesting to see whether Honda can thrive and produce an engine reminiscent of their 80's dominance.
It isn't the perfect deal for McLaren, however...
Unsurprisingly, there is a downside to the deal from McLaren's point of view, and it isn't the obvious reliability concerns.
No, it is the worry that in a year's time, Honda will come good. This is concerning because it is highly unlikely that they would be able to get out of the Renault deal after a single year, and it is also very unlikely that Honda would ever agree to work with McLaren again after their relationship broke down so dramatically. If this situation did happen, in would not only infuriate the team, but it would most likely cost Zak Brown his job, as the shareholders would understandably think that he made a rash decision and didn't consider all of the possible outcomes. It would also mean that McLaren had suffered through three years of dreadful, below-par results only to hand a now good, works engine to their rivals, Red Bull.