McLaren takes a huge step towards the front

The Breaking News in the F1 paddock on the morning of Qualifying for the Russian Grand Prix has not been about Ferrari’s dominance since the Summer or in fact anything else on track. The talk is all around the McLaren Team, who have announced they will be powered by Mercedes Benz power units from 2021. A long term agreement that lasts until at least 2024 that will reunite the historic partnership which brought so many championships to the British team.

Zak Brown commented “Mercedes is the benchmark, both as a team and as a power unit, so it is natural we would seek to secure a relationship with the company for the next phase of our journey (and) we are committed to returning McLaren to the front of the field.” Naturally the main point to pick at here is the simple fact that right now, in 2019, the actual benchmark out on track are Ferrari power units. Impeccable reliability and an incredible power output, especially in Q3, marks them out above Mercedes and Renault. But the reality is, Ferrari would most likely never entertain the idea of partnering with McLaren and vice versa. A McLaren-Ferrari relationship doesn’t seem right somehow. The road car divisions of both teams are arch rivals in the real world anyway.

On the surface, McLaren, who will see out the final year of their Renault contract in 2020, has based its decision on two key factors; the Mercedes power unit has been quicker and more reliable than Renault’s in the hybrid era, and Mercedes demand less money to be their customer.

Obviously this means in theory, the team will have more money to develop the car further in other departments such as aerodynamics or durability. However, there is the expected cost of adapting the car mechanically to a new power unit concept (something McLaren have become accustom to in the past few years also). This seems relatively insignificant and to a team as large as McLaren, it is. The biggest issue will be the inevitable drop off in performance next year as Renault boycott giving McLaren the best upgrades. But it’s surely short term pain for long term gain. In my view, there are so many more positives to this decision than downfalls. 

It may seem relatively early to be thinking of something two seasons away but there is a strange shift in focus going on in the sport right now. The 2021 regulation change (as yet to be officially published) has to be the main focus for all F1 teams back in the research departments and back in the factories. The deal has been done as soon as possible for McLaren with the hope of receiving more data surrounding the power unit than they would have necessarily got even from Renault, their current suppliers. For employees, knowing that the team you work for should have a much better chance on track in future, the focus will automatically shift to looking into that and improving the 2021 car. 

Another way of viewing this, is the idea of the deal being yet another physical step towards distancing the second oldest team in F1 from their former team boss, Ron Dennis. The team is almost unrecognisable from every angle since Dennis’ departure in 2016. The obvious factors include the eye-catching papaya orange colour scheme (something Ron would never have considered- always favouring grey and black liveries) but also the complete management restructure headed by Zak Brown.

On the other side of the story is the Renault F1 Team. Cyril Abiteboul told Sky F1 that the decision was “not a surprise at all” which seems to have the whiff of truth about it. However, there is no getting away from the fact that Renault will notice a serious difference, losing their only customer team deal. The amount of on track data getting back to the team will halve and they won’t be receiving any money from any team. Hypothetically they will only need to produce half as many power units but data is gold dust in Formula 1 so Renault will be searching for customer teams even if they don’t admit it. It has to be said that the precarious position of Williams in the championship could potentially push the British team into making a drastic overhaul of their team and wanting to take the plunge of another engine manufacturer- cue the revival of a Williams Renault partnership rumours.

The McLaren Mercedes partnership competed exclusively as a works team, whilst supplying Force India and then Brawn GP with engines, until 2009. Then it continued as a customer team relationship from 2010 when Mercedes GP took over from Brawn GP. However, Mercedes is insistent that its new relationship with McLaren does not mark the end for the all conquering Mercedes team that has won every Constructors and Drivers Championship in the hybrid era. Contrary to what Eddie Jordan predicted a few years ago on Channel 4, when he declared Mercedes would be bought buy China F1 Ltd, it seems Mercedes is here to stay in the sport.

On the subject of McLaren, it does need to be mentioned how much of an improvement Andreas Seidl seems to be having since only joining at the start of the 2019 season. Seidl, the former Principal of Porsche’s LMP1 project and now McLaren’s Managing Director, was a key person in pushing to sign the deal for Mercedes power units, according to McLaren. Likewise to most years being labelled similarly by the team, 2019 is clearly a huge year for them with the two new drivers, Norris and Sainz, and Seidl joining from Porsche’s LMP1 project. There has been the biggest performance leap of the hybrid era for them this season and the season is not yet over. A lot of the recognition for this should go to Seidl. 

In conclusion, it is impossible to predict if this is the right decision, but judging by the current state of affairs in F1, this looks to be a great thing for McLaren and a huge step towards becoming the team they once were.


Image Credit: Sunday Times Driving



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