I spent the last week in Melbourne enjoying the start of a new era in F1. In amongst the excitement of Mercedes being beaten (mostly on merit) and the better looking, faster and more racy cars,one of the things that becomes immediately apparent: McLaren is in trouble.
The company has struggled to find a title sponsor (not something new admittedly) and its performance has been relatively poor. Reliability, speed, consistency. All things missing from the current McLaren-Honda package.
Fernando Alonso has been particularly outspoken on the topic. His comments have strongly hinted that if the performance issue isn’t fixed he will leave, either the team or the sport.
McLaren have also been rumoured to have been in touch with Mercedes about a customer engine option, an opportunity presented thanks to a break clause in the contract with Honda.
To abandon Honda would be madness. Acceptance of a customer Mercedes engine would put McLaren in the pack with Williams and Force India with no hope of ever progressing forward. That’s without considering the substantial financial accommodation McLaren has with Honda. If the rumours are true the team would need to find an extra $100m a year to make up that shortfall.
Losing Honda would be terminal. Losing Alonso a minor inconvenience. In fact McLaren missed a golden opportunity to fix its Honda woes at the end of last season. When Mercedes came knocking looking for a replacement for Nico Rosberg, McLaren should have snatched their hand off, released Alonso and ended Jensen Button’s sabbatical.
Alonso may be marginally faster than the Brit, however at best he’s worth one place on the grid. By releasing him they would have removed most of the criticism of the team and Honda (most of which originates in the Alonso camp) and continued to develop their package quietly in the background.
Honda may have objected, but to have one of the company’s largest salary recipients continually talking down the performance of its highest profile product cannot be healthy.
In 1983, when Honda re-entered F1 it partnered with former F2 team Spirit. Its low profile entry gradually becoming competitive before the company expanded its operations to include Williams, then Lotus and finally the creation of the all conquering McLaren Honda partnership.
That’s a model the company would do well to adopt. Let Alonso leave. Most people in the sport would like to see him in a different team. Yes, the Mercedes window is closed for this season, but Bottas is on a one year contract so that’s likely to open again.
Eric Boullier and the rest of the McLaren management need to show some spine and stand up for their partners at this difficult time. That means stopping its lead driver from continually bad-mouthing Honda’s engine. I’m not sure what Alonso’s contract says about bringing the company into disrepute, but it’s certainly time to put the Spaniard on his final warning.