McLaren has not had the start of the season it expected.
Its messy divorce with Honda last year after three seasons of underperformance by the Japanese company was supposed to herald a new optimistic chapter in the team’s history.
McLaren forwent Honda’s sizable financial contribution to put in its lot with Renault. The French manufacturer was and continues to make the third-best engine on the grid, but as Red Bull Racing had proven three times in 2017, it was capable of winning races.
Indeed McLaren racing director Eric Boullier had made exactly this point last season when he proclaimed that his chassis was amongst the best on the field and would by rights be competing with Red Bull Racing for podiums and wins if it were mated to a more competitive power unit.
Boullier’s prophecy turned 2018 into a test. With equal engine power McLaren would be compared directly with Red Bull Racing.
The results have been underwhelming.
Though McLaren is just 19 points behind Red Bull Racing in the constructors standings, its haul has been flattered by a messy start to the year by its rival. In Bahrain and Azerbaijan RBR failed to get either car to the chequered flag, whereas McLaren drivers Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne have a 100 per cent finishing record.
Qualifying, a clearer illustration of pure pace, paints a more painful picture: McLaren has been slower than both Red Bull Racing and Renault’s own works team at every race this year and is yet to make it into the top 10.
The cracks are starting to show. In Azerbaijan news broke that the team’s chassis director, Tim Goss, had been stood down from his role after almost 30 years at Woking, though McLaren refused to confirm anything more than ‘ongoing restructuring’.
It’s not difficult to deduce the reasoning behind the axing, with Boullier himself declaring in China that the team’s performance targets had been set far too low in 2018, leading to the development of a car far off the pace of what should be its natural rivals.
But Boullier has put his team’s chips on an upgrade package due at this weekend’s Spanish Grand Prix (13 May), where the start of the European leg tends to coincide with significant car updates derived from learnings at the first four rounds.
“From that point we will see, performance-wise, where we are,” the Frenchman said last month, but even this comes with some serious caveats.
“In Barcelona there is a new aero package coming, but I think 95 per cent of the paddock is bringing a new aero package to Barcelona,” Alonso tempered. “So maybe the gap will remain as it is or we will recover it a little bit or just lose a little bit of ground.
“I think it is up to us to make the package work and deliver to expectations, and hopefully some others do not deliver. That is our hope.”
In the space of just a few months McLaren’s competitive outlook has plummeted from title contender to hoping other teams err in their own development programmes to steal positions on the grid.
This is the new reality at Woking, so it’s unsurprising that both Boullier and CEO Zak Brown — the latter having had his role redefined to make him more responsible for the race team’s performance — have found themselves under immense pressure at the helm.
The Spanish Grand Prix has the potential to revive the team’s fortunes along with those of its leaders. But getting it wrong in Barcelona will only confirm McLaren is stuck on a path that must inevitably end in internal revolution as the once great McLaren seeks a return to championship contention.