Hot on the heels of the news that the Singapore Grand Prix’s contract had been extended came the weekend’s second bigger set of announcements: McLaren and Honda have confirmed their divorce.
The second marriage between team and engine builder – who previously dominated the Formula 1 scene between 1988 and 1992 – has been an unmitigated failure of underperformance and unreliability.
There were a number of other behind-the-scenes deals that were also announced.
Honda managed to avoid an embarrassing exit from the sport altogether by signing a works partnership with Scuderia Toro Rosso. The Italian team’s customer engine deal with Renault was terminated early, happily gobbled up by McLaren on a three-year term.
To sweeten the deal for Renault, it has secured the services of Toro Rosso driver Carlos Sainz Jr for 2018, with the Spaniard effectively on loan from Red Bull to the manufacturer. The former GP2 Series driver Jolyon Palmer, who has scored just one point in his Formula 1 career with Renault, has therefore been fired.
It has been a drawn out process to negotiate and required the intervention of the Formula One Group which helped ensure that Honda was able to remain in the sport and save what little credibility it has left.
Toro Rosso is the reluctant victim in all of the moving and shaking, losing its star driver and effectively downgrading its power plant. It is widely believed that parent owner Red Bull has clauses in the fine print that will allow it to exercise an option and secure Honda engines for the senior Red Bull Racing team from as soon as 2019 if the power units show a dramatic turnaround in form.
All of the major players from McLaren, Honda, Renault and Toro Rosso were brought in front of the sport’s media at Friday’s traditional FIA Press Conference to announce the new deals.
Honda, in particular, brought out its big players. Katsuhide Moriyama, the chief officer for brand and communication, was joined by Honda’s motorsport manager, Masashi Yamamoto.
“For Honda, F1 started with the dream of our founder [Soichiro Honda],” Moriyama said. “For our company F1 is very important, it is in our DNA. We have gone through a very tough situation and nobody was satisfied with the result but quitting F1 was never an option for us. It is our goal to overcome this tough challenge and get back to fighting with the frontrunners. Our spirit, Honda spirit, is going to come back.”
“I realised F1 technology is very high,” added Yamamoto, who finally admitted that Honda’s performance has simply not been good enough in the current V6 turbo hybrid era. “[We] joined a year later, it has been a real struggle for us to keep up with the new technology.”
Honda reunited with McLaren in 2015 with the stated aim of repeating the dominance that had swept the partnership between team and engine builder to four Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championship titles between 1988 and 1991.
McLaren had by then lost its status as a works team thanks to the return of Mercedes as a constructor team and knew that the Silver Arrows would claim the mantle as the top team running the three-pointed star. It had to return to being a manufacturer-supported team to be a winner again, and the promise of the partnership proved enough to woo Fernando Alonso back to the team from Ferrari.
As a portent of things to come, the car could barely manage a handful of laps in 2015 pre-season testing before something broke in the engine. The first year of the reunification saw McLaren finish a dreadful ninth in the Constructors’ Championship standings – the worst season in its history.
Their 2016 campaign proved little better, although a series of stirring drives by Alonso helped the team finish sixth overall. By the end of the year, team principal Ron Dennis – who had rejected the idea of Honda expanding to supplying a second team to quicken development – was ousted in a shareholder revolt amid the team’s poor results and plummeting sponsorship revenues.
The new team principal Zak Brown has navigated choppy waters with a brave face and candour to the media that was lacking in his predecessor, but even he knew the writing was on the wall and moved quickly to start negotiations to exit from Honda.
“Today’s announcement gives us the stability we need to move ahead with our chassis and technical programme for 2018 without any further hesitation,” Brown said.
“As an organisation, McLaren has always worked extremely hard to form lasting partnerships with its technical suppliers. We’re convinced that we can bring real value to Renault Sport Racing as we work alongside it to develop this current power unit into a regular race winner.”
“This agreement is perfectly in line with our mid-term strategy and with our objective to be in a winning position as a team in 2020,” added Renault Sport managing director Cyril Abiteboul.
“We are looking forward to seeing the Renault brand on next year’s McLaren and racing our new partners on track. McLaren is an inspirational team with two talented drivers which should not only support our engine development efforts but also act as a reference and an example in the ongoing construction of our chassis operations. This is an exciting new beginning with a championship-winning team that is hungry to return to glory.”
Images via McLaren Honda and Red Bull Racing