Two weeks ago we marked the anniversary of the death of one of the sport’s greatest talents, Ayrton Senna. His form while at Mclaren from 1988 until 1991 is often what most remember him for, with the iconic sight of Ayrton driving to victory at many a race in his red and white Honda powered McLaren. It was only after the rise of Williams and Renault from 1992 that put a stop to McLarens winning streak of 4 World Titles in a row, and with it came Honda’s withdrawal from the sport at the end of 1992. McLaren battled through 1993 with an underpowered Ford Unit, but it wasn’t enough to match Williams, or indeed enough to stop Ayrton from leaving for their rivals at the end of the season. So when McLaren announced in 2013 that they would be making the switch back to Honda engines for this season, there were a lot of different reactions, ranging from excitement to the confused.
Now, 5 races into the season, everyone is wondering what on earth Ron Dennis was thinking when he agreed to this. Or at the very least what he was drinking. Poor Fernando Alonso probably can’t quite believe his luck either – his decision to leave Ferrari was explained away by persistent underachievement by the team in producing him a car to challenge Red Bull and Mercedes. However, it now seems Ferrari have upped their game as the only challengers to Mercedes in the title race, while Fernando is potting around at the tail end. However, is it as simple as writing them off? Or is everyone forgetting what is involved in getting to the front in F1? There are two clear schools of thought here: this will either turn out to be a stroke of genius, or a total disaster. Let’s have a look at both, starting with the positive.
Formula 1 works in cycles. It is a well-known fact. Due to constant rule changes, different car designs, and varying degrees of funding available throughout a team’s lifespan, no one outfit can stay at the very front indefinitely. The recent reversal of fortunes for Red Bull and Ferrari are a prime example of the cycles. Since the Schumacher era, Ferrari have arguably been in a downward slide, with this Season being the first in a while where they have shown genuine pace to win the title. Red Bull on the other hand have just come out of a purple patch of 4 world titles in a row, and are now struggling to finish in the top 5. But no-one has to look further for a good example than McLaren’s own past. Following Honda’s withdrawal in 1992, the Woking based team were left trying multiple engine combinations over the next 3 years, including Ford, Lamborghini and Peugeot power plants, without much success. Then in 1995, McLaren took a punt on Mercedes. The alliance started slowly, with more poor results compared to their race winning cars of the late 80s and early 90s. However, in 1997, it started to click. Now with a solid driver line up in Coulthard and Hakkinen, and Adrian Newey on board, the car developed into a race winner, and there started a long period of McLaren domination and jaunts at the title. Is that much of a stretch to imagine McLaren making the same leap with Honda this time around?
But then there are the negatives to consider. Aside from the aforementioned success with Senna and Prost, Honda’s results in F1 have been far from impressive. Upon purchasing BAR, everyone thought Honda were going to move up the order – and for a short time, they did. Button picked up several podiums as well as his first career win with the team in Hungary. However, once the team hit financial trouble, it was all downhill for the team until Ross Brawn bought out the outfit in 2009, leaving Honda to exit the sport once again. Which begs the question: Does Honda really have what it takes to cut it in F1? A harsh question – but a valid one. McLaren better hope they do, otherwise this slump may be a lot longer than Mr Dennis and Mr Alonso hoped. The fact is McLaren are expected to perform. A team steeped in F1 history and champions can’t be seen languishing at the back. But the way the season has gone so far, it may not be so unrealistic to expect that.