2017 expectations vs reality
I said at the start of the season, following the disaster that the team experienced in winter testing, that I feared the worst for McLaren, and largely these fears have come to pass so far in 2017.
The team failed to get both cars to the finish line for the first seven rounds of the year, and even failed to start both cars at back to back events in Bahrain (Vandoorne) and Russia (Alonso). This wouldn’t be too bad if the performance was there when the cars were running but sadly this hasn’t been the case, with the Honda engine not only proving unreliable (at one point it was actually shaking itself apart due to unforeseen vibrations), but painfully slow. During these first seven races the team failed to score a point before the chaos of Azerbaijan finally yielded 9th position, and two points, for Fernando Alonso.
The following two races in Austria and Great Britain resulted in two DNFs for Alonso, but Stoffel Vandoorne showed small signs of progress with 12th and 11th place respectively. This was most likely due to Honda’s introduction of its ‘Spec 3’ engine that the Japanese manufacturer pushed to make ready for both drivers from Austria onwards.
With these new upgrades, and aided by the Hungaroring’s lesser power demands compared with other tracks, McLaren achieved the seemingly impossible: a double-points finish, with Vandoorne 10th and Alonso 6th. The Spaniard also managed to snatch the fastest lap of the race, capping a very encouraging weekend for McLaren-Honda after which they finally moved off the bottom of the constructors’ standings.
Prospects for the rest of 2017
It’s tempting then to think that the team have turned a corner, at last, and that the second half of the 2017 season will be better for the Woking team.
The result in Hungary was indeed very encouraging, and this new ‘Spec 3’ engine finally seems to be providing not only more speed, but crucially more reliability for the team, with them experiencing no engine related race retirements since this new power unit arrived.
However, we must remember that this result was achieved at the Hungaroring, which as mentioned above is one of the least demanding circuits in terms of power. If we think back to 2009, you will recall that Lewis Hamilton won that year’s Hungarian Grand Prix in his McLaren. That win, however, followed a poor run of results for McLaren and Hamilton, with that being their first win of the year after a previous best of 4th that came six races earlier.
So the Hungary result may not be entirely representative of what the team are now capable of, but they have certainly made a significant step forward in the last few months. How significant a step this is, and whether they can add to this progress over the summer, will only truly be seen once we get to Spa.
Q: 13R: DNF
Q: 18R: 13
Q: 13R: DNF
Q: 16R: DNF
Q: 15R: 14*
Q: 17R: DNS
Q: 15R: DNS
Q: 17R: 14
Q: 7R: 12
Q: 19R: DNF
Q: 10R: DNF
Q: 12R: 16*
Q: 16R: 14
Q: 16R: 9
Q: 19R: 12
Q: 12R: DNF
Q: 13R: 12
Q: 13R: DNF
Q: 9R: 11
Q: 8R: 6
Q: 9R: 10
|* = Retired from race but was classified due to completing over 90% race distance|
Looking at the above table, race retirements have been such an issue for the team that both drivers have only completed the full race distance at the same event on two occasions: in Azerbaijan and in Hungary. On both these occasions though Fernando Alonso was the first across the line, taking 9th and 6th to Vandoorne’s 12th and 10th.
The qualifying picture is also not kind to McLaren’s young Belgian, with Alonso holding a mighty 9-1 advantage on Saturdays, and Vandoorne only getting the best of his veteran teammate around Silverstone in July.
Realistically this is to be expected though, and it’s really quite difficult to criticise Vandoorne for failing to get on the same level as a driver of Fernando Alonso’s calibre, especially in his first full season in F1, and in an absolute pig of a car. Given the improvements that the team and Honda seem to be making, though, and the fact that Vandoorne’s best results on Saturday and Sunday have come in the most recent races, I would expect him to put up more of a fight against Alonso for the rest of the season.
Driver performance: Fernando Alonso
Alonso has done all he can this year, as he has done the last few years, to drag his McLaren-Honda as far up the grid as possible, but for much of the season it has seemed very much like an uphill struggle on what could well be a sheer cliff.
The Spaniard failed to finish the first three races of the year, and then failed to start the 4th. However, a spectacular drive at the Spanish Grand Prix, which saw him qualify 7th but finish 12th after a first lap incident, reminded us all of the depth of talent possessed by the two time world champion.
He then took a break from F1 to race at the Indianapolis 500, where he impressed in his oval debut, qualifying in the top 10 and even leading the race for a brief time before his Honda-engined car expired towards the end of the race. Regardless, his heroics in both qualifying and the race will have earned him a new legion of fans Stateside.
Upon his return, he failed to finish in Canada before the carnage of Azerbaijan’s crazy race finally gave him and the team their first points of the year. Two further retirements, although this time unrelated to his new ‘Spec 3’ engine, followed before Hungary’s breakthrough result left Alonso on 10 points at the halfway point in the season.
Despite the constant threat of engine failures and other related issues, incredibly Alonso has remained motivated in 2017, so let’s hope the team can reward this effort with an engine and car that can at least be mixing it in the midfield on a regular basis. Whether he will be willing to hang on and see what the team can produce for 2018 though, is another matter entirely.
Driver performance: Stoffel Vandoorne
Vandoorne hasn’t been as unlucky as Alonso this year, in terms of engine issues, in that he has only retired four times, compared to the seven retirements experienced by his teammate. He is equally as unlucky as Fernando though, simply due to the fact that he is being made to drive the MCL32 this year, and in his rookie season no less.
This year’s car is simply not allowing Vandoorne to showcase his abilities. Alonso is a veteran racer at this point, and has driven cars ranging from awful to championship-winning, and so can draw on these experiences in order to adapt to the challenges posed by this year’s McLaren. Vandoorne, on the other hand, has nowhere near this level of experience, and so is clearly struggling to cope with the range of issues that are coming his way so far in 2017.
Saying all this though, Vandoorne has tended to go forward in the races he has finished, often finishing ahead of his qualifying berth. He has also come close on a few occasions before Hungary to breaking into the points, finishing 12th twice and 11th once, so it’s certainly not all doom and gloom. It’s just unfortunate he has Alonso for a teammate!
Moving forward though, and given the improvements to his McLaren-Honda that should hopefully make the car more predictable and easier to handle, Stoffel might finally have a solid platform on which to build his fledgling F1 career on.
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