Season Preview: McLaren

It can’t keep going on like this, can it? McLaren were improving, certainly, last year’s car was a clear upgrade on the horrendous 2015 MP4-30 that saw them finish 9th out of 10 in the constructors championship with just 27 points, but even 6th in 2016 with 76 won’t go far to restoring the reputation of the second most successful constructor in the sport’s history. But if many at McLaren, including Fernando Alonso, are to be believed, the finger need only be pointed in one direction, Honda.

Honda’s reputation in the sport comes largely from their extremely successful stint in the 80s where they picked up race victories with Williams, Lotus and of course McLaren. It was this partnership with McLaren that saw 44 wins from 80 starts that had so many people excited about the reunion in 2015, but their concept of a ‘size zero’ slim line engine just hasn’t worked.

As a result they’ve torn up the design and started again, this time instead of trying to outthink Mercedes, they’ve decided to try and emulate them. The problem with this is of course, that they are now starting several years back, and the evidence is that it’s showing.

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It’s incredibly frustrating for McLaren and their supporters having seen some progress to now have to start all over again, and begs the question that if Honda are just going to try and equal Mercedes, why not just go back to Mercedes and save time? This is the rumour in the paddock for 2018, as tensions between the two sour. Pre-season McLaren and Honda are now acting like an unhappy couple pretending to love each other through a tense game of charades at Christmas, think Kirk van Houten drawing dignity. It’s not going to end well.

For all their engine issues though, McLaren have been able to boast one of the strongest driver line-ups in recent memory. For two years Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button, who between them have 3 world titles and 47 race victories, ensured McLaren undoubtedly knew the car was at least being driven to the limit of its capabilities. Alonso’s career, which is now in its latter stages at the age of 35, feels like a series of missed opportunities and being in the wrong place at the wrong time, which has been epitomised by his move back to the vastly underperforming McLaren.

If he doesn’t add to his two world titles that he achieved in his mid-twenties, when arguably he hadn’t even reached the pinnacle of his powers, it’ll feel an underachievement for someone so supremely talented. Of the current grid only Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel appear to be in the same league as the Spaniard, whose speed and race craft place him firmly within the elite across any era.

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The concern for Alonso will be that can he stay at the peak of his abilities long enough for the McLaren project to come to fruition, current evidence would suggest not. His contract is up at the end of the season though, and one last drive at the front is surely on the cards, it just feels such a waste if it transpires in 2017 Alonso is fighting relative rookies, feeding off scraps once again. The sport needs Alonso at the front.

Across from Alonso for the 2017 season will be rookie Stoffel Vandoorne, replacing Jenson Button who officially is on a yearlong sabbatical. Quite whether this will be the case, with few believing it to be a sabbatical and more a retirement, remains to be seen, but either way the seat is Vandoorne’s. Vandoorne impressed with his one chance in 2016 at Bahrain after stepping in for the injured Alonso following his horror crash in Melbourne, achieving McLaren’s first point of the season with a mature drive.

Vandoorne is a curious case, in his first full season and classified a rookie, the Belgian will turn 25 on the Sunday of the opening race weekend, comparatively old for a rookie these days when you consider how old recent debutants Max Verstappen (17) and Daniil Kvyat (19) were, with Lance Stroll (18) also coming in this year. Many a driver have been discarded as not up to the task years before turning 25, and although Vandoorne deserves at least a full season to showcase his talent, he won’t be afforded the same patience that other recent novices have been.

Even more worrying for Vandoorne will be partnering someone as strong as Alonso, who you’d expect to comfortably beat his inexperienced teammate. To spend your first year in the sport at the back of the grid being comfortably beaten by your teammate will not look good on the CV. The only thing that might help Vandoorne’s case is that not many drivers will be lining up to take his seat in current circumstances, if McLaren do decide to look elsewhere.

It’s hard to determine exactly what McLaren would consider success for 2017, as they must balance expectation with what is genuinely realistic. They have resources that eclipse all but Ferrari and Mercedes, but from such a low starting point to build from and an engine that is nowhere near the equal of its counterparts, they can’t be expecting to challenge even the upper end of the midfield.

Gradual improvement across the season is the likely result as Honda pile resources into repairing their reputation, McLaren just need to hope that the teams in front have taken enough points off of each other that they can bring themselves into play with the midfield if they do improve. It won’t be straightforward though, and with the ambitions of Fernando Alonso to match, there may well be a lot of tensions and pressure if the best they can muster is 8th.

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