Reality can be harsh.
Mclaren, a team that has not won a race since November 2012, signed a deal with Honda during 2013 for the 2015 season. Ron Dennis, the founder of the modern McLaren that we know, stated in 2015 that in his opinion, it was not possible for any team to win without being a “factory” engine team for a major manufacturer. McLaren had been nowhere compared to Mercedes in the 2014 season, and Dennis concluded that no customer team could enjoy the same access, and hence the same level of integration and optimization, as a factory team.
We know the history of the McLaren – Honda relationhip since 2015. The relationship, never a good one, finally collapsed last Spring and Summer, when Honda turned up for Winter testing with a powerplant that kept failing, vibrated the hell out of itself and the car, and was lacking in power. After putting Honda on a strict plan to force them to provide a powerplant by the end of the Summer that approached Mercedes customer power, McLaren walked away from the relationship in September 2017, and the Honda engine deal is now with Toro Rosso. The Honda program is now on its third leader in 4 seasons, so there have been consequences inside Honda for the poor performance of the powerplant.
However, all of the time that McLaren was struggling to be competitive with the Honda powerplant, the team had a ready-made excuse for poor on-track performance. It was the same mantra: we would be a lot more competitive with anybody else’s powerplant in the car. This narrative of a potentially front-running team hobbled by a sub-standard power unit was bought into by the drivers, and team management, who said it consistently a lot in the 2017 season.
Following the break with Honda, McLaren, having failed to agree a deal with Mercedes, signed a 3 year deal with Renault. Zak Brown and other McLaren leaders made encouraging noises, pointing out when asked that Red Bull, despite not being a “factory” team (and in fact, despite having re-badged their Renault powerplant as a Tag-Heuer), were winning races. The expectation was that McLaren could be a top 8 team again, capable of podiums, with a chance of a win.
Although the McLaren-Renault car of 2018 is more reliable and more competitive than the McLaren-Honda car, it is still not competitive enough. The car qualifies in about the same place as it did when powered by Honda, and is more consistently competitive in race trim, but it is still not fast enough. So far this season, there is not even the sniff of a podium.
Formula 1, under the current hybrid powerplant formula, is a two-tier series. Mercedes, Ferrari and (on a good day) Red Bull are in Tier 1. The remaining teams are in Tier 2. Absent a sudden change in aero regulations or car development, this is likely to be the status quo until the end of the 2020 season and the beginning of a new engine formula.
In the meantime, Fernando Alonso has seemingly shifted gears away from trying to win in Formula 1 to achieving the rare feat of a win at Monaco, a Formula 1 world championship, a win in the Indianapolis 500, and a win at Le Mans. He appears to have realized that, out of options for any further wins or championships in Formula 1, he should chase the quadruple crown, only achieved by one man (Graham Hill).
McLaren is reported to be keen to keep Alonso in the organization, and to that end is involved in detail discussions with Andretti Autosport to set up an Indycar team for Alonso for 2019 and beyond. The series would be delighted to have Alonso, and if enough sponsorship can be found, it is possible that 2018 will be Fernando Alonso’s last season in F1.
The lack of competitiveness of the Mclaren-Renault car, plus the seeming diversion of resources away from F1, has led to rumours of a staff revolt. There have already been staff changes, with Tim Goss, a long time employee, leaving his job as Technical Director (chassis) in April.
The coalescence point for the rumours appears to be the potential availability of Martin Whitmarsh. Whitmarsh was the CEO of the racing team until he was fired by Ron Dennis in 2014. He was given a generous severance deal that apparently prevented him from working in Formula 1 for a lengthy period of time, so he took a job as the CEO of the UK’s Americas Cup yacht team for several years, a job that he relinquished in November 2017.
Whitmarsh was eventually replaced at Mclaren by Jost Capito, poached from VW by Ron Dennis, but Capito, being Ron’s man, was dismissed soon after Dennis left the organization that he founded, and Zak Brown became the CEO.
Recently, Whitmarsh has been seen in and around the McLaren garage at races, having seemingly been welcomed back into the fold following the departure last year of Ron Dennis. He has now (wittingly or unwittingly) become a lightning rod for the rumours of staff discontent.
The rumours seem to have the following narrative: Eric Bouiller has no credibility as the team manager, because the car is noncompetitive and he cannot explain why. Zak Brown has no credibility because he is distracting McLaren by trying to set up a team in Indycar, and allowing Fernando Alonso to drive in other racing series.
Solution: Bring back Martin Whitmarsh.
There are some problems with this idea, in no particular order:
1. Whitmarsh is supposed to be well-liked in McLaren. This may be true, but sometimes the reason why a leader is popular is that they are not kicking the corporation along. McLaren’s on-track performance declined while Whitmarsh was the CEO. It is not clear how or why the expectation that it will improve if he returns is valid. The idea of getting Whitmarsh back seems to be more rooted in “his name is not Bouiller or Brown”.
2. There is next to no chance of Mclaren winning a Formula 1 race prior to 2021. Renault’s powerplant is not at the level of Ferrari or Mercedes, and the performance of this year’s car shows that it is a good, not great, car. (The problem with blaming your powerplant supplier is that when you change suppliers, your stock excuse disappears). McLaren does not have the engineering bench of Red Bull, so the idea of a “wild card” win is over-optimistic.
McLaren, if it wants to plausibly be a winning racing organization, has to move into another series. The WEC is expensive at the top level, the regulations are in flux, and the series lacks enough promotion muscle outside of Le Mans. Indycar is the next best series from a fit and financial standpoint. A winning McLaren indycar would be a powerful distraction from the average performance of the current F1 team, and if enough sponsorship can be found, it would be self-financing. Winning cures a lot of ills within a competitive organization.
The idea that parachuting a single person into McLaren will magically restore the team’s fortunes is not realistic. Most of the issues with the F1 team are the result of poor strategic decisions. The strategy of going with Honda was the correct one, but the results were not there. McLaren, realistically, is in survival mode in F1 until 2021. Any new CEO is unlikely to be able to change that reality.