McLaren Near Breaking Point With Honda, Alonso Wants Third WDC

In advance of the Formula One race in Canada this weekend, McLaren CEO Zak Brown has drawn a line in the pit lane when it comes to Honda and its underpowered, unreliable engines. He told Reuters this week, “The executive committee have now given us our marching orders. We’re not going to go into another year like this, in hope.”

McLaren Honda 2017

“I don’t want to get into what our options are. Our preference is to win the world championship with Honda. But at some point you need to make a decision as to whether that’s achievable. And we have serious concerns.

“Missing upgrades, and upgrades not delivering to the level we were told they were going to, you can only take that so long. And we’re near our limit. So far it hasn’t worked. A year in Formula 1 is an eternity. Three years is a decade. And you can’t just go on forever.”

Honda’s Missing Engine Upgrade

Honda had promised a big engine upgrade for this weekend’s race, but that new engine has not materialized. Two weeks ago in Monaco, Jenson Button — filling in for Fernando while he was racing in the Indianapolis 500 — was forced to start from the pit lane after his McLaren Honda race car was hit with a 15 spot grid penalty thanks to an unscheduled engine change.

Honda In Formula One

Honda first entered Formula One in 1964 with its innovative 1.5 liter V-12 engine and went on to gain fame as the engine supplier to Williams and Tyrell. (See the fascinating Honda Formula One Heritage website for a chronology of its involvement in the sport.)

Honda and McLaren combined to win the 1988 Constructors Championship with Ayrton Senna at the wheel. In 1989, the pairing succeeded in topping the standings again, this time with Alain Prost taking the driver’s championship. So it was with great anticipation that McLaren reunited with Honda at the beginning of the 2015 Formula One season.

Not Your Father’s Oldsmobile

But things had changed dramatically during the intervening years. Back then, the sport was all about engines. Now, the V-6 turbocharged engine is just a part of an astonishingly complex powertrain system that includes a large electric motor fed by power recaptured from the brakes and a system that uses the heat of the exhaust to generate more electricity.

The total package is insanely complicated. Performance is as much a result of sophisticated software as it is pistons pumping up and down. The turbo spins at speeds up to 130,000 rpm. Current technology puts the exhaust part of the turbo at one end of the engine and the compressor at the other. The two are connected by a shaft that runs in the valley between the two cylinder heads. Add in massive amounts of heat build-up during the race and making all the parts work together with maximum efficiency is exceedingly difficult.

McLaren Struggles With New Engine Rules

The current engine rules have created serious challenges for other engine suppliers like Renault and Ferrari. Until recently, only Mercedes has been able to make the package work reliably. But Renault and Ferrari have conquered the engineering problems. Ferrari is now leading the championship. But Honda has been embarrassed by an uninterrupted string of power train failures.

Not only are the powertrain units down on power compared to the competition, they have been famously fragile, puking their guts out repeatedly at race tracks around the world while other cars go whizzing past.

Will Alonso Stay At McLaren?

Honda has suffered similar humiliation this season in IndyCar racing. Fernando Alonso saw his debut at Indy ruined when the Honda engine in the back of his Andretti race car expired just as the critical final phase of the Indy 500 was beginning. For his part, Alonso said this week that he will decide later this year whether he will return to McLaren in 2018.

“We have to win,” he told the press in Montreal on Thursday. “If we are winning, before September or something like that, I will make a decision and I will stay.” Following up on Zak Brown’s comments about Honda, Alonso said, “We all want to win. Zak’s comments yesterday are probably what you expect for Zak to say. He wants to win, he wants to put McLaren again in a contender position for the championship.

“After three years we are not in that position so things have to change, I guess for the team. Like him, I want to win. I joined this project because I want to be world champion, and we are not in that position. If you don’t see things changing and you are not in a competitive position, maybe you change projects. That is all I can say right now.”

“The third world championship is my biggest priority, and I developed my skills to drive F1 cars for the last 16 years. It is the best car I can drive, the F1. If I cannot succeed and win this championship, I can race in any series and I know I can win in any series.”

Wheels Within Wheels

That last part may contain an important clue about Alonso’s future. The odds of McLaren winning races any time soon are slim. While it is struggling to finish races, other teams are working furiously to develop their cars and make them even faster. McLaren can’t even think about doing that until is conquers its reliability issues.

Keep in mind that Zak Brown is the one who put together the deal that put Fernando into the seat of a competitive car at the Indy 500. Something is in the wind, even if only Brown and Alonso know what it is. At this point in the season, knowing what we know now, the chances of Fernando Alonso driving for McLaren next year look very dim indeed.

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Steve Hanley

Closely following the transition from internal combustion to electricity. Whether it's cars, trucks, ships, or airplanes, sustainability is the key. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.