Though the emerging battle between Ferrari and Mercedes promises to enthral at this weekend’s Chinese Grand Prix, the ongoing woe befalling McLaren-Honda is teasing to take its own seismic turn.
Thanks to a dreadful preseason almost completely bereft of meaningful testing mileage, grim faces arrived in Melbourne for the season-opening Australian Grand Prix, where the results justified the pessimism.
Though Fernando Alonso in a typically herculean drive managed to cling to the points-paying tenth place for much of the race largely due to the retirements of others, a suspension failure in the final 10 laps put paid to any dreams of an against-the-odds finish.
Rookie teammate Stoffel Vandoorne endured baptism of similar brimstone, finishing a whole two laps down and dead last in a field of 13 finishers.
Alonso, long the most vociferous dissenter inside the team, couldn’t hold back after getting out of the car.
“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.”
Any hope for salvation remains months away, with round five or six — the Spanish or Monaco grands prix in middle or late May — the likely introduction point due to regulations requiring each power unit to last one quarter of the 20-race season.
But when in 2015 and 2016 the waiting game was a question of when, in 2017, the third year of the relationship, it could be a question of if — with the stakes for the future of the partnership high should Honda fail to deliver.
The next three grand prix will be raced on circuits with long straights, with the next two rounds in particular — in Shanghai this weekend and Bahrain the following weekend — comprising straights of 1.2 kilometres and 1.1 kilometres respectively, which are amongst the longest in the sport.
Not only will Honda’s low power output and high fuel consumption make life difficult for Alonso and Vandoorne on such power-demanding track configurations, the power unit’s electrical deployment — the hybrid energy worth 120 kW per lap — is rumoured to be so off the pace that the cars will dramatically lose acceleration before the end of those long straights.
The situation is so dire that long-time McLaren shareholder Mansour Ojjeh informally sounded out old engine partner turned rival Mercedes regarding a customer engine supply last month. Meanwhile Honda has made no secret that it’s in talks with other Formula One teams about supplying power units, if only to increase its customer stable to troubleshoot engine problems more rapidly — something former McLaren CEO Ron Dennis was vehemently against despite the potential benefits.
On the line is not merely the future of the McLaren-Honda brand. Fernando Alonso has foreshadowed his departure on numerous occasions should his car fail to improve, rookie Stoffel Vandoorne could be burnt by the experience, McLaren could find itself anchored to the bottom of the table long term, and Honda could be forced to withdraw from Formula One seven years early and without success.
The next month, then, will prove critical, with the added spice of a regulatory deadline for Honda to notify the governing body of its 2018 supply intentions by 6 May.
So while Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton do battle at the front in Shanghai, keep one eye on the unfolding drama at the back of the grid, where the sport could be poised to experience a competitive shake-up of an different kind.