McLaren and its engine partner Honda are inching closer to a seemingly inevitable split, with this weekend’s Italian Grand Prix expected to be the flashpoint at which the engine market and the future of Fernando Alonso are determined.
The Woking squad is fast running out of time to finalise what engine will be under the covers of its 2018 car and that in turn is likely to determine the whereabouts of Alonso. Desperate not to lose its star driver Alonso to a rival outfit or haemorrhage any more sponsors, McLaren seems to finally have run out of patience with its Japanese partner.
The split has the potential to get very messy for the team, which is locked in to a works supply deal with Honda on a long-term deal.
Farming Honda off to another team for 2018 would have been the cleanest way out, most importantly because it keeps Honda in the sport. That being said, it would still be a major loss of face for the company.
A partnership with Sauber fell through barely weeks after it was announced, and there are conflicting explanations about its negotiations with Toro Rosso. Team boss Franz Tost denied any such discussions have even taken place, while McLaren openly admitted that they had agreed to a gearbox supply deal with the Faenza team if it took on Honda power.
Negotiations – which reportedly were stalled – are now back on in earnest, with Toro Rosso reportedly setting a deadline of this weekend’s Italian Grand Prix to close the deal.
The Italian outfit is a key player in the mix because it has what McLaren wants: Renault engines.
Each engine builder is capped at supplying three teams, and with Renault’s own works team plus the two Red Bull owned teams on its roster there is no room in the sandbox for McLaren.
McLaren could force the situation itself by breaking its contract with Honda and effectively kicking them out of the sport if negotiations with Toro Rosso fail as well.
That is not a situation that Formula 1’s owners, Liberty Media, want at a time when it is desperate to attract more manufacturers to the sport.
For McLaren, a switch away from Honda is seemingly a deal-clincher for it to keep Alonso beyond 2017. The Spaniard is encouraged by the direction the team has taken with its chassis, as well as the improved culture in the team since the ousting of Ron Dennis.
In truth, however, Alonso has few realistic or competitive options beyond McLaren. There’s no room at Ferrari or Red Bull Racing, he is blocked by Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes and Renault won’t entertain a third bite of the cherry. Force India couldn’t afford him.
There were stories – fanned somewhat by Alonso – that he was considering a drive at Williams to replace Felipe Massa, but on the basis of the Grove team’s ever-declining form in 2017 it would not seem to be a good idea on paper.
Then again, Alonso’s career is somewhat littered with poor decisions about whom to drive for, so anything is perhaps possible.
Images via McLaren and Red Bull Content Pool