Rumours of McLaren-Honda’s rocky relationship simmered throughout testing, but at the Australian Grand Prix, the sport’s first competitive meeting of the year, the situation began to boil.
The power unit troubles that prevented almost any meaningful running during the preseason again worked against the famous partnership. One listen to the car circulating around Albert Park — the obviously different engine note, the crunching through the gearbox due to the car vibrations — left no doubt about the seriousness of the team’s plight.
The race briefly teased an against-the-odds points finish for Fernando Alonso, who clung to tenth place for dear life, but in the end the result was predictable — Alonso retired with suspension problems and Stoffel Vandoorne took the flag two laps down.
The Spaniard, after getting out of his broken car, felt no obligation to soften the blow of another poor result.
“It was probably the best race of my life,” he said. “[There are] few times I’ve had such an uncompetitive car … and even so we were in the points.
“But it was probably one of the best races I’ve had.”
While the team struggled on track, rumours off the track of an imminent split between McLaren and Honda intensified. The issue was skirted around by all involved, but news of McLaren sounding out Mercedes for customer engines [http://www.autobild.de/artikel/formel-1-honda-zu-schlecht-11354469.html] has been followed by Honda confirming it’s in talks with other teams, if only about a customer relationship [http://www.autosport.com/news/report.php/id/128646].
Sauber, the only team competing with McLaren at the back of the grid, was happy to confirm it was one of the teams talking with Honda as part of its quest to replace its outgunned year-old Ferrari power unit at the end of the year [http://www.autosport.com/news/report.php/id/128727].
The obvious question is to ask why Sauber — or indeed any team — would opt for Honda power unit so brutally uncompetitive that it’s driving McLaren to consider ending a long-term and highly lucrative works supply contract seven years early.
But the answer is perhaps a little more obvious than the question suggests.
The 2017 season will mark 21 years since Sauber first adopted Ferrari engines, a partnership interrupted only by a four-year blip in 2006¬–09 during which Sauber partnered BMW.
Sauber at various points has resembled a Ferrari junior team as a result, with a wide range of Sauber youngsters moving south of the Swiss-Italian border to the Scuderia, but in return Sauber has mostly been dealt outdated engines, as is the case this season.
Moreover, as an independent Swiss team operating away from F1’s English hub and in a difficult economic zone outside the European Union, cash flow rather than potential has tended to stymie the team most often — indeed the Sauber’s Hinwil headquarters are amongst the best regarded in the sport.
Then consider that just 10 winless podium places — less than half of its total 27-podium, one-win haul — came to the team outside its BMW era, and the synergies of a Honda partnership start to become more obvious.
Sauber, thanks to its current lowly championship ranking, starts with low expectations, but it remains a squad of fantastic potential waiting to be activated by a manufacturer-size cash injection.
Honda, meanwhile, is reportedly funding McLaren to the tune of around $70 million plus half the driver salaries, the team’s budget shortfall and free engines [http://www.autosport.com/premium/feature/6774/revealed-how-much-f1-teams-spend].
McLaren-Honda might’ve been the dream reunion of two iconic motorsport names from yesteryear, but if management at Woking is ready to give it all up, there could be no better recipient of a works engine deal than the perennial troopers at Sauber.
It would bring financial certainty to Sauber while enabling its owners, which have stated a desire to diversify the team’s engineering output into different fields, to learn from one of the world’s largest automotive manufacturers.
Most saliently, when Honda does eventually deliver the goods, Formula One will be one competitive team richer — and it’ll be one of the sport’s longest-serving teams vaulting up the order to boot.
Honda too could benefit from a relationship that might allow it breathing space to develop without the crushing pressure of expectation to deliver wins immediately. Moreover, it could exercise more power inside the team — for example, by having input on driver selection to best suit its involvement.
There remains a host of reasons the McLaren-Honda relationship remains difficult, and apparently lopsided power balance between the two appears to be one of them, but whatever the case, where McLaren appears to be unable to foster Honda’s F1 re-education, Sauber could prove the perfect sporting classroom — and in the perfect position to reap the maximum reward for its efforts.