As I'm sure we are all aware, at the Singapore Grand Prix last season, McLaren announced that they would be ending their relationship with the much maligned Honda, and would then join forces with Renault as a customer for the 2018 season. In this article, I intend to evaluate whether, from the evidence that we have so far, whether McLaren have made the right decision. And I'll start with the obvious question.
Are they racing or spectating?
This may not sound like a serious question, but in the last three years, McLaren have had a frankly astounding number of engine failures. Instead of me trying to convey what kind of shitstorm McLaren had got itself into, just watch a bit of this video and you'll soon get the idea:
During pre-season testing this year, McLaren again managed the least number of laps out of any team: for many people, this was beginning to look like a re-run of the last three years. However, even though they managed the least running, when the McLaren was on track, it showed some real pace - Martin Brundle summed it up well when he described the car as 'fragile but fast'.
So, what went wrong at testing?
On the first day of testing, they were put out of action for most of the day due to a rogue wheel nut, which came loose and therefore meant that the tyre decided to do a runner, ending up in a spin into the gravel for Fernando Alonso. This may seem like a silly issue, and it is - but issues like this is not what a team with a completely new engine wants to encounter.
Later in the week, McLaren suffered what Zak Brown has called 'a £2 issue' with an exhaust clip, meaning that the exhaust was loose inside the engine cover, burning important parts of the internals and costing the team an awful lot of running. While we are on the subject of the exhaust, during testing, people began to notice burn-marks on the bodywork of the MCL33, which we later found out to be caused by the very tight packaging of the rear of the car.
Tight, 'teardrop' packaging was to blame for the burn marks. (Credit: Giorgio Piola via Motorsport.com)
When the team got underway for the second test, they were immediately beset with an electrical issue. This issue meant that they missed most of the running on Tuesday morning. To add to this, in the afternoon, they also suffered a hydraulic leak, meaning that they could only manage 38 laps for that day. However, later on in the day, we learned that the electrical issue was a batch production issue with the batteries that were supplied to the team from Renault.
McLaren Racing Director, Eric Boullier, had this to say:
"This is a new relationship with Renault, so there are a few things we are discovering - as a team as well. The glitches we have had so far are not very important, but they are stopping us running.
"The car is also quite complicated, so every time you have an issue you spend hours to strip everything off, fix it, and rebuild the car.
"The car is new so the mechanics are not used to going fast. Generally, between testing and the European season, you change an engine in six hours and by Barcelona [The Spanish Grand Prix] you do it in two-and-a-half hours, so that's how much you can progress in working on the car. We are at the beginning now.
"The wheel nut we had and the exhaust problem, they kept the car in the garage for hours just to repair them."
Were these issues fixed in time for Melbourne?
In a word, yes. McLaren endured a pretty trouble free weekend in Australia, especially when you compare it to how they fared in testing. In FP1 however, there were fears that the exhaust issues hadn't been fixed, as they sat out most of the session due to an 'exhaust issue'. Despite this, the team said that there was no cause for concern, and they didn't run 'as a precaution', with Alonso saying that "We lost a little bit of time in first practice with some issues but we managed to recover everything in the second session".
Regarding the various testing issues, Boullier reiterated the fact that the problems had been fixed:
"We didn't have the reliability we had hoped for in winter testing, but all the issues we faced have since been addressed back at the factory."
Apart from this issue in FP1, there were no issues throughout the rest of the weekend, and the car seemed to have genuine race pace, even if the performance wasn't there in qualifying. I know it is still very early in the season, but this says to me that the reliability, especially the parts that McLaren are responsible for, has been sorted.
What's the mood at McLaren?
I think it is fair to say that there is a renewed, and much needed sense of optimism at McLaren this season, and they have been buoyed mainly by the engine change. The 'Grand Prix Driver' series on Amazon Prime revealed that during the three years of the McLaren-Honda partnership, not a single person left the team, and everybody was working to improve the situation. I think this showed great team spirit, but this year they really feel that they have a chance. I think this was best shown at the end of the race, when Fernando's engineer came on to the radio, congratulating him for finishing in fifth place. This just shows how much the team needed a good finish, and just how bad the previous seasons have been. This is because back in the Hamilton/Button era, there is no way that they would have been congratulated in the same way for a fifth place finish. This fifth place however was their joint best for three years (even if Alonso did get a bit lucky, Verstappen couldn't get close).
One person who seems the happiest in comparison to the end of last year, well the past three years, is Fernando Alonso. Many believe that he offered McLaren an ultimatum last year, which was to either change engine supplier or he would leave the team. I think that this is probably true, as he does seem to be the team manager on occasion, and his talents are obviously very valuable to McLaren. Have a listen to the team radio below:
"Now we can fight. We can fight."
This message sums the state of McLaren up perfectly. They may not be the fastest, but they are in the mix, and with Alonso driving you would have to say they have a better chance than most. I refer back to my original point, McLaren are no longer just spectating.
So, yay or nay?
To conclude, I think that McLaren could be onto a winner with Renault. This is because they have obviously proven their ability to produce Formula One engines, engines that have dominated in the past, such as in the Red Bull years. With the chassis expertise and experience that McLaren have, you must think that it is a matter of time before they are winning again.
Another point to note is that they have a good leadership team, led by Zak Brown, who doesn't have the feisty reputation that Ron Dennis had, which I think could be part of the reason Renault were persuaded to supply engines to the team (you would have thought that they would have been against the idea as they are championship rivals). I think Zak has brought energy to the team, and was instrumental in the re-signing of Alonso, and clearly wants to do the best for the team he loves.
Finally, I think that the change had to be made. Regardless of how much of a performance upgrade the Renault engine provides, and how good the McLaren chassis is, the engine is better than the Honda. This has been shown by Toro Rosso, who although were surprisingly reliable in winter testing, were never fast. To add to this, in the race in Melbourne, Gasly retired with an engine failure, and Brendon Hartley was dead last. Something had to be done, and after years of giving Honda chance after chance, someone at McLaren has finally had the balls to pull the plug.
Were McLaren right to ditch Honda?
Have your say by voting in the poll below, and by leaving a comment. Also, feel free to use the tribe chat to ask a question and argue against my point (I will always try and reply to comments).