The odds are stacked against McLaren Honda to make the gains in 2016 they need to bridge the gap to F1’s leaders. Honda claim they are targeting dramatic gains in both performance and reliability from the internal combustion element of their F1 hybrid engine. Pre-season testing in Barcelona has left most questions unanswered but MotorSportNotes considers that the cost of ‘another’ 2015 season for McLaren, Honda and F1 in general is dangerously high.
Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button were admirable in their ability to hold their tongues throughout 2015. More of the same in 2016 will likely to see much more open and vocal criticism from both former world-champions.
Alonso will not stick around for anything less than a top 10 car, with the increasingly attractive World Endurance Championships and the lure of Le Mans of greater interest. Button by contrast has been left wondering why he fought so hard to partner Alonso in 2015. Both have been positive in their feedback so far during 2016 testing but they were putting a positive spin on things this time last year.
McLaren have the hugely talented Stoffel Vandoorne waiting in the wings but one significant cost of another nightmare season could be the loss of two big-name drivers. McLaren could then find themselves, at best, a midfield team with no front running talent, an unproven rookie and few big names interested in joining them.
Failure to land significant sponsorship for 2015, the loss of existing sponsors and no prize money punished the whole McLaren Technology Group financially. Last season will have done little to attract sponsors or investors and the team was selling off merchandise at rock bottom prices before Christmas due to a lack of interest amongst fans (despite much of it being some of the sharpest looking team wear on the grid).
The team has already born the financial cost of the 2015 season. Despite the huge sums being invested by Honda, McLaren as an entity cannot continue to endure a cycle of poor performance and falling revenues. More worryingly, if performance improvements are not forthcoming the team could face an uphill battle to attract engineering talent from rival teams in order to remedy their problems. A diminishing bank balance allied to poor performance will not make McLaren a an attractive proposition for the best in the sport.
Honda cannot hide the fact they were the root cause of McLaren’s woe in 2015. The Japanese car manufacturer is however fully committed to dragging their motor sports reputation out of the mud which is important.
On the eve of the 2016 season there is no doubt Honda are doing everything they can and throwing plenty of yen at the fundamental problems of their hybrid power unit. But as we have seen before, this season’s guarantee can easily become next season’s broken promise from any manufacturer, Honda included.
Economic pragmatism will overtake the desire to win (and save face which too many observers are considering a guarantee of Honda’s long term commitment) if the results or the financial realities of car manufacturing take a turn for the worse. Honda will drop McLaren – and F1 – like a red hot carbon brake disc if it is damaging their core business.
Which is a nice segue in to the final ‘cost’ – to the sport of F1 in general. With a rules structure that appears to favour big car manufacturers, F1 needs teams like McLaren and Williams to do well. Why? Simple: because manufacturers never stick around.
With the exception of Ferrari – and they are not a manufacturer in the modern sense of the word – no major car manufacturer has ever stuck with F1 for the long-term. Remember Toyota? What about BMW? How about Ford? How many times have Renault arrived and left again?
A repeat of 2015 for McLaren will leave the team in a very precarious position financially and competitively, not to mention unattractive to drivers, engineering talent, sponsors and fans. Just as manufacturers like Honda will inevitably come and go so too will Mercedes and Renault. Unlike McLaren or Williams who were racing teams when their doors opened and will still be racing teams when their doors close, car manufacturers have other (and much, much more effective) ways to make money.
It may appear overly dramatic but without teams like McLaren F1 could cease to exist when the car manufacturers have done what they came to do. Or in most cases, failed in what they came to do.