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How Much Longer Can McLaren Afford To Stick With Honda?

Honda, they make some of the best engines on the road today, they have been a major engine supplier in IndyCar for decades, they have won multiple championships the world over. They were a force in Formula 1 in the 80s into the early 90s. Honda was the engine that powered the Ayrton Senna ascent to legen-wait for it-dary. Honda has been the engine supplier for McLaren in recent years and it has been nothing short of a disaster. McLaren took a huge risk signing on with Honda. McLaren had 2 world champions driving for them in the form of Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso.

Once the FIA mandated new V6 turbocharged hybrid power units McLaren quickly came to one conclusion. They were never going to beat Mercedes while also being a Mercedes customer. This is F1, and no team is going to give their advantage away no matter how much someone is paying for it. So McLaren made the choice, they decided to go with the company that left the sport in 2008.

Honda left F1 in 2008/9 amid underwhelming results.

From their run of success in the 80s and early 90s Honda has steadily declined, eventually calling it quits just before the 2009 season. The remnants of the BAR Honda Team became Brawn GP and all they did was win the Constructors Championship in their very first season. Jenson Button won the World Drivers Championship, all with parts that were never intended to work with a Mercedes engine.

So what is it? We all know Honda is a hugely capable company. We all know they can build a great engine so why isn’t it clicking in F1? I mean this recent partnership with McLaren hasn’t even come close to anything resembling a success. The engines are cripplingly unreliable. This would be somewhat acceptable if they were pushing the limits for more power. Pushing for the extra horsepower that will give them an advantage over the field. Unfortunately the Honda power unit suffers from unreliability and a lack of power. It must suck to know you have zero chance of competing mere days into the season.

This failure to produce a reliable power unit with sufficient power was acceptable in the beginning, chalk it up to R&D. After a few years of the same song and you can see how the issue can go from worrisome to down right infuriating. Who knows how much Constructors Championship bonus money McLaren has lost as a result of their poor performance. The lack of results has also caused what might be a much larger issue. Sponsorship or in this case the potential lack of sponsorship. McLaren still has no title sponsor for 2018, failure to secure significant sponsorship could spell doom for one of Formula 1’s marquee teams.

Honda does bring sponsorship dollars to McLaren and they supply the engines for free so McLaren isn’t completely screwed. However, should Honda decide to pull the plug given the resources needed and the complete lack competitive results McLaren would be up that famous creek without a paddle.

McLaren is at a crossroads, 2017 is a hugely important year for them. At minimum they need the security of a reliable power unit. Unfortunately they were hit with reliability woes right out of the box and turned the fewest laps of any team in the recent pre-season test at Barcelona. This may prove to be the last straw for McLaren. Reports have surfaced that McLaren has reached out to one of the power unit suppliers to potentially replace their Hondas.

McLaren has reached out to their former supplier, Mercedes about a possible replacement power unit. McLaren took on the likes of Ferrari and Michael Schumacher while partnered with Mercedes. McLaren was the defacto factory Mercedes team from 1995 to 2010. In 2011 Mercedes decided to become a full constructor. McLaren remained a Mercedes engine customer until 2014. Ironically, the Mercedes team is what became of the Brawn GP team. As we discussed earlier, during Honda’s 2009 exit the team that remained became Brawn GP.

McLaren is no stranger to Mercedes power having run Merc power units as recently as 2014.

When would all this go down? Difficult to say. McLaren’s contract with Honda does give them an out should they feel there is no hope of significant progress in the near future. Frankly, given what Honda has provided so far I see no reason to hold out any hope that things are going to get better. A switch to Mercedes power could happen as soon as 2018. While a 2017 switch is possible it is highly unlikely. The season is far to close to starting for McLaren to work out all the contractual details, let alone effectively engineer the Mercedes engine into a chassis that was never intended for it.

It looks like McLaren is stuck with Honda for 2017. Hopefully that is the end of it, hopefully 2018 sees McLaren with a new power unit supplier. A proper, well sorted power unit supplier so McLaren can return to some form of competitiveness.

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About Chad Kennedy

Chad burst from the womb wearing a racing suit and a helmet. Chad’s passion for cars is in his very DNA. His father was a gear head and passed on the tradition through owning such classics as a ’66 Mustang and a ’59 Corvette all while taking him to various race tracks in the area. Chad likes to wrench on his rides whenever possible, forgoing the stealership. Chad is an avid motorsports fan with particular interest in endurance/sports car racing. When not online writing for Shifting Lanes, you can find him working at the local golf course teaching people how to swing or hooning a golf cart at impossible speeds.

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