Zak Brown, one of the team’s senior executives, did not gloss over the issues when he said in an interview, “This is going to be a difficult year.”
McLaren has been enduring difficult years for some time.
It is one of the most successful teams in Formula One history, winning 12 drivers’ titles, second only to the 15 of Ferrari; eight constructors’ championships behind Ferrari and Williams; and 182 races, again second to Ferrari.
But McLaren has not won a constructors’ title since 1998, and none of its drivers have won a title since 2008, when Lewis Hamilton was champion before switching to Mercedes for 2013.
The last race victory was four and a half years ago when Jenson Button won the final race of 2012 in Brazil. There have since been 83 grand prix events, making it by far the longest drought in the team’s history since it was formed in 1966.
It is clear McLaren will not start winning again until Honda finally provides the team with a power unit that can compete with Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault.
“We knew before winter testing we were behind where we wanted to be performance-wise,” Yusuke Hasegawa, who is in charge of Honda’s Formula One operation, said. “However, it wasn’t until we began testing that we started to fully understand the situation. I was very disappointed. We could have continued with last year’s power unit concept and raced steadily throughout this season in the top 10. It was already a very stable system, but we knew the performance was not good enough from a power point of view.”
“We knew there was a limitation in extracting power, so we needed to change the engine concept — the design, the package, the internal combustion engine — and that was a necessary and important step for us,” Hasegawa said. “In effect, we’ve recreated the whole package from zero, but we didn’t expect the problems to be as bad as they are.
“However, we are very confident our direction is right. Even now I have no doubt our concept itself is O.K., but we need more time to complete the whole package, the complete system.”
Hasegawa added that they “obviously can’t spend another three years from now, so we are trying to complete everything in the middle of this season, in the summer.”
Brown, who last November was appointed the executive director of the McLaren Technology Group, the company that oversees the team, is insistent Honda will remain its partner.
“If what you’ve been doing over the last couple of years doesn’t work, then you’ve got to change how you are doing things, and we are doing that,” Brown said. “Honda is making some changes, but what we are not doing is changing Honda. You have to stick by your partners. The question has been asked a thousand times, but we are sticking with Honda, and not just for this season, but beyond this season because we believe when we get it right, we’ll be a tough team to beat.”
“Has this year been a setback?” he said. “Absolutely, but you can’t cry over it. You have to get on with it and pull together. That’s what teams do.”
After more than three years as racing director, the frustration at the lack of progress weighs heavily on Eric Boullier.
“I’ve been involved in racing all my life, and with the other series I’ve been involved in, I’ve won races and championships,” Boullier said. “This is how I see racing. If I can’t do that, then I’m going to do another job because I would have nothing to do here.
“My mission when I joined the team — and Honda had already been signed — was to bring a racing culture back into the team, which I believe I have done.
“For me, transparency is part of the racing culture, and anybody can challenge me — if somebody doesn’t want me, that’s different — but anybody can challenge me on the strengths of our chassis, and we know where we are.”
Boullier said the results were not visible on the track because most of the performance was driven by the power unit, “so it is masked behind this.”
“The power unit has gone backward in terms of performance this season, but that is to go another step forward, and hopefully it will be a big step when it happens,” he said. “It’s going to come one day, definitely.”
If that day is not this year, then McLaren will most likely lose one of its biggest assets in Alonso, whose contract expires at the end of the season.
Alonso demonstrated his talent this month in Spain, his home country, by dragging an uncompetitive car up to seventh on the starting grid. But he finished the race in 12th, outside the point-scoring positions.
Speaking at a news conference in Spain, Alonso said: “My intention, or first priority, is to race here. I am happy with the team, but we are not winning.
“If from here to September, October, we are in a position where we see clearly a possibility to win in 2018, I will be more than happy to stay with the team. If it is not the case, then I will be more than happy to talk to anyone.”
Brown, who was recruited because of his marketing prowess, with one of his priorities to attract new sponsors and partners to the team, knows he cannot stop Alonso from leaving.
“We’ve got to give him a car capable of winning races,” Brown said. “That’s what it’s going to come down to.”
“I wouldn’t expect him to stick around if we can’t give him a car that’s running at the front,” he said. “If we do, then there is no doubt in my mind he will stay.”
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