McLaren Honda’s Formula for Winning Now

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It’s not the Four Horsemen and J.J. Dillon, it’s McLaren Honda!

At first, I didn’t like the idea of McLaren demoting, or even worse, cutting ties with Kevin Magnussen just to squeeze one more year out of Jenson Button’s Formula 1 career. I didn’t like it a bit. Not even twelve months had passed before McLaren signed Sergio Perez, who by the summer break of 2012 was absolutely red-hot with three podium finishes, two genuine brushes with victory at Malaysia and Italy – hell, he was strongly being considered as a mid-season replacement for the struggling Felipe Massa at Ferrari – before they let him go because he was underperforming compared to Button in a mediocre car.

They had promoted Magnussen in Perez’s place, with all the promise that the former Formula Renault 3.5 Series champion, just the second former champion to earn a promotion to Formula 1 the very next year after Robert Kubica, would be a star of the future. That promise seemed to be fulfilled when he scored a podium finish upon his F1 debut at the Australian Grand Prix, the first driver to put it on the podium in his F1 debut since another McLaren young driver of note named…Hamilton, was it? But after his form seemed to tail off afterwards (so did McLaren as a whole after Melbourne), and Jenson Button drove toward the end of the season like, well, like his career was on the line, McLaren were seemingly ready to burn through two different drivers, both under the age of 25, in a span of twelve months just so they could keep Button and bring in Fernando Alonso, who would absolutely never, EVER come back to McLaren the way their partnership ended so acrimoniously in 2007.

You know, just like how Kimi Raikkonen would never come back to Ferrari after being bought out of the largest Formula One contract to date to make room for Alonso in 2010, and like how Nigel Mansell would never come back to Williams after announcing that he was leaving for 1993 – during the middle of his championship season in ’92 – to go to IndyCar, and like how Paul Tracy said he would never “race for hot dogs and hamburgers” in the newly-unified IndyCar Series early in 2008, only to then make a one-off months later that year – and for the Vision Racing team run by Indy Racing League founder Tony George no less, the most hated man among the very same Champ Car supporters who had for years rallied around Tracy as a hero to them beginning shortly after the 2002 Indianapolis 500.

Back to Magnussen, the idea that McLaren would let him go just one year after bringing him in to replace Perez contradicts Ron Dennis‘ patient approach with other drivers several years ago. Dennis could have fired Mika Hakkinen for failing to deliver victories from his McLaren debut in late 1993 until he actually won his first race in 1997, in the season-ending European Grand Prix at Jerez. A timespan that included a near-fatal accident in Adelaide and dozens of races in cars that didn’t have enough to win races. He didn’t fire Hakkinen. Instead, Dennis was patient with his driver, and in the next two years, Hakkinen would be World Champion both times, staging some of the most memorable duels with Michael Schumacher and Ferrari. Dennis could have also fired Kimi Raikkonen just one year into his deal with McLaren after the 2002 season. Similar to Perez and Magnussen’s struggles in their first years at McLaren, Raikkonen scored just a paltry 24 points to teammate David Coulthard‘s 41 points that included a win in Monaco. Remember also that Raikkonen was not the former Sauber driver many were expecting to get the promotion to McLaren when Mika Hakkinen retired – that would have been Nick Heidfeld, who was actually a coveted prospect of McLaren’s in Formula 3 and Formula 3000. Instead, Dennis kept Raikkonen into 2003. Raikkonen won his first race, and went a full sixteen rounds against Schumacher for the title. Two years later, he’d battle Alonso for the championship in a fast, yet fragile McLaren MP4-20, and two years after that he’d be World Champion, albeit for McLaren’s biggest rivals. Now you have a McLaren team that’s burning through promising young drivers after just one season a piece it seems, all in the effort to win big, and win now.

Ultimately, Kevin Magnussen will remain with McLaren as the team’s third driver, behind the newly-signed Alonso, and the freshly-retained Button. And I thought it over, and after a while, the decision to keep these two veteran drivers and former champions actually made sense to me. The obvious conclusion? McLaren and Honda are in “win now” mode, with drivers that are in the right mindset to do it and a great opportunity that any other team on the grid not named Mercedes may not have.

McLaren want to win now, and they want to win pretty bad. They want to turn around a two-year winless drought, their longest since the mid-1990s in the early years of their expired Mercedes-Benz partnership. Many pundits have now started to jokingly refer to McLaren as a midfield team, if they weren’t doing it going back into 2013. That’s because they have been a midfield team for two seasons. Weak cars that produce unflattering results for their drivers most weekends, key personnel have been let go or resigned en masse and been replaced by new people from other places, and they’ve had just two podium finishes in two years and they both came at the same race – and one of them doesn’t count if Daniel Ricciardo had kept his result in Australia.

Honda want to win now because, well, they didn’t get back into F1 just six years after giving F1 its most emphatic “Bye, Felicia” by quitting months before the 2009 season, only to have to play the waiting game for several years again. When you think of Honda in F1, you likely don’t think of Honda, the engine supplier and factory team from 2000 to 2008, who also supplied BAR, Jordan, and Super Aguri in those years. Combined, those teams won just one race with Honda powerplants. One win. In nine seasons. And with multiple teams supplied. Pastor Maldonado will likely end his F1 career with a better winning percentage than that. And Honda knows they can do better.

No, when most think of Honda and F1, they think of their last partnership with McLaren. They think of the championship years and the epic clashes between bitter rivals Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost in superior equipment that allowed them to showcase their strengths. They think of the dominant McLaren MP4/4, the last championship-winning car of the previous turbo era – claiming an astonishing fifteen wins from sixteen entries. They think of the McLaren Honda F1 cars that succeeded it from 1989 to 1992, where McLaren won the Constructors’ Championship four times in a row, and 44 races in total in their five years together.

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That’s the legacy that McLaren Honda Part II has to live up to, and even though there’s enough being invested to suggest that this partnership won’t flop, just remember that the vaunted Williams Renault reunion of 2012 soured after a bad second season the next year, and was dissolved for 2014. Kimi Raikkonen’s reunion tour with Ferrari didn’t start off too hot last season either, while we’re at it. There’s no guarantee that McLaren and Honda will partner to produce the same results in 2015 that they did from 1988 to 1992.

There is also a deep feeling of desperation among their drivers. Button, desperate to show that he still has what it takes to produce results in a championship-caliber car (and again, this is assuming the MP4-30 is in fact a championship-caliber car) at age 35 with very high mileage of almost 300 Grands Prix. His sole World Championship has been attributed as a product of a dominant car, not of his pure driving ability. Over the last five seasons, he has been outqualified by his teammates over the course of a season every year except this last one. Button’s perceived frequent complaining of car imbalance has become a meme within the F1 fanbase, and it’s sadly been rooted in truth for most of the last two years. He’s taking a pay-cut of £4,000,000 GBP just to stay on a two-year contract with McLaren, which will likely be his last F1 contract. Button cannot afford to end up the way Nigel Mansell did in 1995 when he came to Woking: Stuck with a McLaren team that could not compete for wins in the first year with a new engine supplier, ultimately opting to walk away after two races knowing a prolonged bad final stanza would do further damage to his career. That’s why McLaren and Honda want to build Button a competitive car.

Alonso, once a 19-year-old F1 rookie with Minardi many eons ago, is entering his age 34 season next year. Since the 2012 season where he finished runner-up to Sebastian Vettel, he has lost more World Championships in the final race of a season than he has actually won World Championships. Alonso’s desperation to win again, not just that elusive third title that he’s whiffed on three times already, but even to win individual grands prix following a winless 2014 at a declining Ferrari team, combined with the desperation of McLaren to stop their slide into midfield hell, allowed Alonso and McLaren to bury their grudges from 2007. By god, they’re even letting him keep his beard. The popular rumor that Honda would foot the bill for Alonso’s £25,000,000 GBP salary helps too, from a business standpoint at least. Surely then, Alonso would not be entering another team that seems promising on paper but then starts to depreciate after every successive season with progressively worse cars and progressively more dysfunctional management, as was the case with Ferrari? That’s why McLaren and Honda want to build Alonso a competitive car.

And then there’s the fans. McLaren fans, unhappy with the team’s performance since 2013, some unhappy that they’re holding onto Button after being past his prime for years in their eyes, others unhappy that Alonso is back after what unfolded that led to his departure, but all in agreement that they want a winner and they want it now, damnit – and realizing that with the only all-new power unit in F1 next year, they may, in theory, have the best chance at throwing a punch right at the chin of the juggernaut of Mercedes-Benz and knocking them out. It’s not as if Renault or Ferrari can upgrade or make a new power unit under the current rules.

McLaren want to guarantee instant results, and yes, they had to mortgage their future to do it. Sure, Magnussen is staying on as a reserve driver, but after two years when Button’s contract runs out, there’s no guarantee that spot will be available to him. Not when other teams could guarantee a racing seat for 2016 once Magnussen fulfills his third driver duties for a year. Not when Stoffel Vandoorne is also within the organization, just ranked in the Top 5 of PaddockScout.com’s F1 Prospects list for the second year running, having to do another year of GP2 Series out of necessity because there’s no room for him elsewhere when the conventional wisdom says that the Belgian phenom – who some see as having much more potential for F1 success than Magnussen – doesn’t really need another year in GP2 for any reason other than to maybe win the championship in 2015. And with an influx of talent that may include Esteban Ocon and a full year of Pierre Gasly in addition to Raffaele Marciello and Mitch Evans coming back, Vandoorne winning the GP2 title next year is far from a lock. And of course, by 2016, he too may have been offered a race seat with another team that McLaren cannot guarantee.

Thing is, if McLaren Honda and one of its two drivers of its imminent future win the championship this year and/or the next, nobody will mind it at all. Their goal is to win the World Championship, and if they can mortgage their future to do it, then there shouldn’t be any fault in it – as much as I wanted to at first. As a Fernando Alonso fan, a diehard supporter of the Spaniard through thick and thin since his maiden season in the Minardi PS01, I want his new deal to be a successful one that bears at least another championship. As someone who enjoyed watching Jenson Button go from a potential ex-F1 driver when Honda left without warning, to a driver with a team built from whatever was left from Honda, to a World Champion with Brawn GP, I hope for his sake, and for the fans, that he can win races again and give Alonso a good fight. And as someone who recognizes the romance and the lore behind the first McLaren Honda team, and what McLaren means to F1 historically, I want McLaren Honda 2015 to be a successful team again.

Otherwise, they’ll have wasted their drivers’ time, Honda will have wasted money in the short-term, and McLaren will look like bozos again. Particularly when 2016 rolls around and suddenly Fernando Alonso is regularly running behind – oh, I don’t know – Force India’s Sergio Perez and his brand new teammate, Kevin Magnussen? Or maybe someone like Stoffel Vandoorne, now finally an F1 rookie driving for, you guessed it! …Lotus F1 Team.

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“….Oh, don’t be silly, R.J.!”

 

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