Could McLaren switch to Mercedes engines in 2017? There is an awful lot of noise in the media in the last few hours that this could happen, based on some supposed conversations between McLaren and Mercedes. There are lots of elements to be addressed in this story but my sense is that it just will not happen. McLaren has lain down with Honda and it will have to stay with the Japanese firm until the end of the season – at least.
The rules state that “a competitor may change the make of engine at any time during the championship” but this fails to look at the contractual, practical and political elements involved.
The contracts between McLaren and Honda are worth a fortune to McLaren. Not only are the engines free, but Honda also pays a fairly massive amount in sponsorship, so much so that the team does not seem to need many other sponsorships. If the contract is broken, the team will need to find the money from somewhere else (and we’re talking hundreds of millions here), not to mention potential damages if a divorce is against Honda’s will because such a move would damage Honda’s reputation.
In practical terms, there are also huge problems. Cars are designed with a specific engine in mind and trying to slot in a different one may not even be possible without a substantial redesign of the rear end of the car – and a lot of compromises. Yes, you can say that Brawn GP slotted in a Mercedes in 2009 and won the World Championship, but this was very specifically due to the double diffuser and without that things would have been very different. Switching engines in the midseason would set the team back significantly because rather than working to catch up, it would be working to get to the starting point as the other teams accelerate away in the course of the season. Mercedes did provide a fourth engine supply last year (to Manor), but is it still geared up to provide four? It has been clear since December that Manor was not going anywhere, and owed Mercedes money and so it is doubtful that the programme was continued. The worst case scenario is that McLaren could finish 10th this year. With only 10 teams competing the team is therefore guaranteed money from both of the main prize funds, whether it is sixth or 10th. The difference between sixth and 10th is reckoned to be around $13 million, and the team would have to spend a great deal more than that to switch engines. So it would not be worth it. It is better to keep trying with Honda and see what comes of it. If things are still bad six races into the season then perhaps it is time to discuss an end-of-season divorce.
The political questions are also important. One has to ask whether returning to being a Mercedes customer is the right thing for McLaren to do. Accepting the status of a customer team would effectively end any real chance the team has of winning any races in the short- to mid- term. The designers in factory teams collaborate and the engine designers produce what the chassis engineers want. They do not do this with customer teams, so the customers are always at a disadvantage.
Since the new 1.6-litre V6 Formula 1 engine rules began we have seen Mercedes win 51 of the 59 Grands Prix. Its customers have won 0 victories. Even when the Mercedes team has messed up, others have beaten the customer Mercedes teams.
It is also a question of status. McLaren is a successful road car company that thrives on partnership status with its suppliers. Being a mere customer, even in an emergency, is not something that the company will want to do. Similarly, Mercedes will not want to be seen to be taking McLaren away from Honda, effectively pushing Honda out of F1. That would not be good for the folk in Stuttgart.
Those who have visited Honda’s F1 facilities in Japan say that they are mind-blowing, in terms of the technology available, but for reasons that are not clear this is not translating into engine performance on the track. Yes, in testing the Hondas were 20mph slower on the straights than their rivals, which sounds dramatic, but look at that in percentage terms and it doesn’t sound anywhere near as bad. At the launch of the new car, Yusuke Hasegawa said that the company had had a busy winter as a result of the removal of the token system in F1, which allows for much more rapid engine development.
“That meant we could implement every idea for the engine, which was restricted in previous years,” Hasegawa explained. “Obviously the car was changing dramatically, so we wanted to redesign our engine to fit the car and behave with the car much better. So we have modified our engine with a much lower centre of gravity and lighter weight. However, it means we have a great challenge for the development. We are not making any promises for this season, but our aim is to make the progress and catch up the frontrunners so that we keep pushing to make more progress.”
Hasegawa said that the engine was 90 percent new and felt it was not going to be too far behind the Mercedes.
“I think we will catch up with them at the beginning of the season,” he said.
Mr Hasegawa is not a fool and he said what he said for a reason. He had data to back up his statements. He wasn’t making it up as he went along.
In testing, however, things did not go well and from what I hear the problems relate to vibrations which are shaking the engine badly and affecting the electronic and electrical systems, causing a number of failures and power losses. What we do not know is whether there have been any structural problems with the ICE, or whether the problems have been largely with the vibration of the hybrid peripherals. It is, to some extent, logical, for the engines to be lacking horsepower because if Honda cannot run them at full tilt because of the vibration they will have turned them down, in an effort to give the team much-needed mileage. They did not achieve as much as they wanted to achieve, but they still managed 1,200 miles, despite the technical dramas.
So the big question is not whether the team is going to leap into the water and swim for Mercedes, but how long the ship can stay afloat, giving Honda time to fix the problems. Once the vibration is under control, Mr Hasegawa’s data may be able to kick in. You can be sure that the people at Honda in Japan are not going to be sitting on their thumbs right now. Honda has had a pretty poor record in F1 in its last two attempts and some argue that this is because it tends to work in its own way and not bring in outside experts, although I am quite sure that in the course of the last two years, the company has been quietly using consultants to try to find solutions. If they have not been doing that, then they deserve little sympathy because you cannot hope to compete with the best in the world when only looking at the problem with Japanese engineers.
Public criticism of Honda by McLaren is not really going to help, except that it may worry the Japanese sufficiently to accept that things must be done differently. McLaren people know this as well. However, it is a dangerous game because while the Japanese are generally polite and gracious they can become less so when their partners don’t say the right things. As Red Bull has found out in the last couple of seasons, it is best to adopt the “we win together and lose together” approach, rather than ripping into an engine supplier who is not delivering the goods.
Better an engine that is down-on-power than no engine at all…