Formula One: McLaren's union with Renault spells good news for the sport and Fernando Alonso’s future

After months of pressure from Fernando Alonso and weeks of speculation and ‘leaked’ news, McLaren finally announced their divorce from Honda. In the same breath, they announced a much-expected union with Renault starting from the 2018 Formula 1 season. What started as an ambitious project between two of Formula 1’s most iconic brands of the 1990s, turned out to be an embarrassment. But that’s what sport is all about — you win some, you lose some.

Luckily for Formula 1, we have not lost Honda altogether. The Japanese manufacturer will supply power units to the Toro Rosso team from next season. Full marks to the new owners of Formula 1 for working hard to ensure that Honda stays in the sport and not follow the trend and deflect to Formula E. So much so, that Honda specifically thanked Liberty Media and the FIA for the Toro Rosso deal.

McLaren's Fernando Alonso in action during a practice session. Reuters

McLaren's Fernando Alonso in action during a practice session. Reuters

While there have been numerous reports on how and why Honda failed to deliver for the last three years, the most interesting comment was that from the sport’s former ring master Bernie Ecclestone. He blamed McLaren for not allowing Honda the freedom to operate and not co-working on the chassis-engine package. The octogenarian isn’t known to be a McLaren — and more importantly their former owner Ron Dennis — fan, so we would take his comment with a pinch of salt.

Apart from the engine failures, grid penalties and heart burn (let’s admit it, everyone wanted the McLaren-Honda project to deliver), the McLaren-Honda partnership resulted in three fifth-place finishes out of 53 races and also allowed Alonso to showcase the lesser known humourous side to his personality. The radio messages from this era of McLaren-Honda will be reminisced for years to come.

As for McLaren, the decision to part from Honda and tie-up with Renault would have been a tough one to make on many levels. First, the legal and commercial ramifications of exiting an existing contract. Honda were reportedly paying $100 million per season, claim unofficial sources, and supplying free power units to McLaren. A large part of the Honda money was used to run the team (they have fewer sponsors than their previously successful seasons) and fund Alonso’s reported $40 million fee.

The second reason would have been the same reason they decided to part with Mercedes and join hands with Honda in 2015 – not wanting to be a customer team. Under Dennis’ leadership, McLaren were clear in their approach of not wanting to be a customer to a works team. The team believed then that if they were to win World Championships, being a customer and competing with the works team wouldn’t give them the competitive edge. This theory probably holds true till date.

But given Honda’s failure to produce a competitive engine, McLaren was left with little option but to scout for a customer supply. While World Championship wins might not come their way, being a customer would at least keep their business afloat. The lack of results and excessive penalties were running down the McLaren brand name, and sponsors fleeing to rival teams was a sign. The only brand that has stuck on with McLaren is Alonso, but he also has almost nowhere else to go.

We have been saying all along that Ferrari and Mercedes are controlling the competitive quotient of the grid. They refused supply to Red Bull Racing a few seasons ago  as they were afraid of being beaten by a customer, and turned down Mclaren’s interest from earlier this season. This means that the richer and far more competitive privateer teams – Red Bull Racing and McLaren can choose only between Renault and Honda power.

It is a surprise that the FIA and FOM didn’t see the engine politics playing out in this manner because let’s also remember that McLaren will be powered by an engine that Red Bull Racing has blamed time and again for their lack of solid results. McLaren had earlier unsuccessfully tried to woo Renault to power their team for the 1993 season.

However, with Renault power, McLaren can at least aim to finish races next season (unless they get the Max Verstappen-spec engine). Alonso has long stressed that the McLaren chassis is as good as the front-runners and with Renault power next year, McLaren could at least target competing with Red Bull Racing for third place in the Constructors’ Championship.

If they manage to get the Daniel Ricciardo-spec engine, consistent podium finishes and surprise race wins (when Ferrari and Mercedes falter) could also be in the offing. While Alonso is yet to confirm his extension with McLaren, the general belief in the paddock is that he will agree to a one-year only extension, and that too at a lower fee! This will be done with the intention of keeping himself available should Ferrari or Mercedes consider him for 2019.

But would the ‘Fernando Alonso Law’ come into effect with Honda in 2019? Many, including us, believe so! The former double World Champion has been the biggest victim of bad team selection decisions and has often left teams only to see them perform after he’s left them. In this case, the assumption is that Honda might actually turn up with a good engine next season, however, after enduring it for three painful years, Alonso won’t be the beneficiary.

In the next one year though, we could expect to see more of Alonso’s exploits in the World Endurance Championships — 24 Hours of Le Mans, most specifically, and the Indy 500 as he’s made winning the ‘Triple Crown of Motorsport’ his immediate goal. Luckily for him, the new McLaren management is open to him racing outside of Formula 1, but let’s also hope that the FIA is able to draw up a calendar that won’t have any of the iconic races clash in dates. If they do so, we can expect Alonso to choose the Monaco Grand Prix over the Indy 500 because his McLaren-Renault will have the package to do well there.

For Formula 1, having a competitive McLaren and Alonso would be good for the business. It would mean more competitive teams and drivers (good news for Stoffel Vandoorne too) on the grid. However, for Force India, a competitive McLaren would mean that aiming for fourth in the Constructors’ Championship next season would be tough.

Finally, on the regulatory front, the meaningless grid penalties awarded to McLaren-Honda have forced the sport to rethink this rule, which has caused more harm to the drivers than the teams. For the moment, the McLaren-Honda divorce puts all stakeholders in a good place. Let’s see how long this can last.

Updated Date: Sep 16, 2017 14:20 PM

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