McLaren’s slump could be the new normal

The McLaren-Honda project is on the cusp of learning the difference between ‘if’ and ‘when’.

For the first two seasons and throughout the pre-partnership hype McLaren-Honda was a matter of ‘when’. It was a question of *when* they’d stand on the podium, *when* they’d score their first race wins, and *when* they’d claim their first turbo-hybrid championship.

The foundation of the reunion venture is Ron Dennis, the since ousted CEO and chairman of the McLaren company, and his famous — or perhaps now infamous — declaration that championship victory is impossible as an engine customer. Honda, the Japanese company famous for its brief but uber-successful eight-championship partnership with McLaren between 1988 and 1992, was only too willing to buy into the narrative, and it signed to be the deliverer of inevitable glory.

It was therefore easy for the team, the media, pundits and fans to be swept along by the surety of the talk, and with two of F1’s favourite title-winning sons, Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso, behind the wheel, McLaren-Honda seemed obviously bound for renewed greatness.

Then it was all a matter of when. Today the outlook is bleaker.

McLaren’s 2017 struggles are chronicled in this column and elsewhere. Testing has been a nightmare of failed Honda power units and a reportedly subpar chassis resulting in woefully few laps.

But the real bombshell came during the second test. While the Honda engine was vibrating itself into failure, Germany’s Auto Bild reported McLaren shareholder Mansour Ojjeh had informally enquired into whether Mercedes would consider supplying power units to the team. The BBC also ran with a similar story.

The penny was dropping: McLaren-Honda is an if, not a when.

But for McLaren it isn’t simply a matter of walking away from an engine partner it signed into the sport with a promise of a decade of collaboration — the consequences are far wider-reaching than a simple engine change.

Consider first McLaren’s chronic lack of sponsorship, a malady that has afflicted the sport’s second oldest continuous team since Vodafone announced it would cease its title sponsorship deal in 2013.

Ron Dennis’s promise to procure a replacement when he swept to power in 2014 came to nil, and rather than a lack of major sponsorship being a mere product of a fiscally conservative marketplace, it became a theme for the team over subsequent years. A look at McLaren’s 2017 car reveals previous few sponsors adorning the livery.

Indeed Honda commands the most visual real estate on the MCL32, which is unsurprising given estimates place the company’s financial contribution to the team at around $70 million. Plus an engine supply. Plus half the driver salaries. Plus, potentially, any budget gaps not filled by the McLaren parent company.

Further compounding the financial misery is that with poor performance comes poor reward. Autosport’s prize money modelling puts the gap between ninth in the championship, where McLaren-Honda finished in its first season, and first at approximately $60 million. Though money paid in 2017 for last 2016’s sixth-place finish will boost the team’s coffers, dire predictions for this year’s car suggest another significant cash decrease for 2018.

Put simply, the financial burden of either extricating McLaren from its Honda contract or remaining a poor Honda-powered performer is extremely heavy, and this is felt in the team’s ability to keep or attract its most talented staff, sign top-class drivers, and develop the car in the first place.

It’s the recipe for disaster than damned Williams to its — whisper it — decade-long baron spell, the highlight of which was Pastor Maldonado’s unexpected and unrepeated victory in 2012 and culminated in a brief partnership with old engine supplier Renault.

Only in 2013, with a switch to Mercedes power and as a result of the behind-the-scenes influence of Adam Parr, did Williams return to victory contention, albeit without scoring a win, in 2014, but even today it remains far from its early-90s championship-winning heyday.

The once-great Williams is the case study for why a bottom-ranking McLaren is far from the temporary phenomenon it’s being made out to be.

Just as the obviously talented Juan Pablo Montoya, Mark Webber, Nico Rosberg, Alexander Wurz and Nico Hülkenberg all moved through Williams without championship success, so to could the likes of Jenson Button, Fernando Alonso, and Stoffel Vandoorne’s careers comprise McLaren’s own modern Dark Ages.

With Honda or not, McLaren is sitting on the precipice of a lost generation.