F1 2017 team review: McLaren
Another year of trial by Honda awaited McLaren this season, but there is cause for optimism moving forward.
2017 expectations vs reality
After a 2016 season that started pretty badly, but ended with a string of encouraging points-scoring positions, expectations were high among McLaren fans that 2017 could be the year that the McLaren-Honda partnership finally started to bear fruit. The team even introduced a retro orange livery for the occasion and collective breaths were held as the team headed to winter testing.
This is where things all went horribly wrong though, as Honda’s new design for 2017 turned out to be even more useless than its 2016 offering, condemning the team to another season of retirements, grid penalties, precious few points, and some unhappy drivers!
Honda did improve as the season went on, but this was still only enough to finish ahead of Sauber in the constructors’ standings. Even Haas, who are only in their second season of Formula 1, finished higher. It was this dismal performance, especially after the previous two years of promised pace never materialising, and the powers that be at McLaren ultimately decided to cut their losses and drop Honda as their engine supplier.
A fairly acrimonious end to what was meant to be a fantastical reunion of two racing giants, but one that was certainly overdue.
Development record and constructors’ performance
You really get the feeling that Peter Prodromou and his team in McLaren’s aerodynamics department could have taken the year off and the team wouldn’t have fared any worse. They could have had the best aero package on the grid and we would be none the wiser due to the shocking engine in the back of the car, and the fact was that we lacked any real comparison as they were the only team unfortunate enough to be running Honda power.
The good news is that when the team were bringing new aero parts, they are largely finding them to be very successful, with Eric Boullier saying in June that the team were hitting “95% of what we were expecting,” an impressive correlation between factory and track that can only bode well for the future of the team.
Their main limiting factor though was, as we’ve already touched on, the engine, but we did see improvement in this area as the season progressed. Starting with horrendous reliability issues that prevented the team from running at full tilt (when they were running at all), Honda, to their credit, worked overtime to get on top of these issues, and were rewarded with the team’s first points in Azerbaijan.
Further engine updates in Belgium and Italy allowed the team to progress further, but by season’s end they had not been able to mount a challenge any higher than ninth in the championship. By this time the team had said goodbye to Honda and hello to Renault power for 2018. A sad end to a partnership that promised so much, but that ultimately couldn’t continue between the two parties.
Driver head to head
Fernando Alonso remained with the team after 2016, but 2009 champion Jenson Button sailed off into retirement and was replaced by highly rated Belgian rookie Stoffel Vandoorne. Good results were initially hard to come by, but as Honda improved, it was Alonso who predictably got the team off the mark in 2017.
Vandoorne would also get on the scoreboard in Hungary, a result that marked the team’s first double points finish of the season. The Belgian would then record two excellent seventh places in Singapore and Malaysia to leapfrog Alonso in the standings and put the Spaniard at real risk of being beaten by a rookie teammate.
Admittedly Alonso was unlucky in Singapore to be taken out from a promising position by the first corner carnage, and the backdrop around this time of contract speculation and the future direction of the team couldn’t have been helping his focus, but this doesn’t take anything away from Vandoorne. In fact, it suggests that he may even be the more level-headed of the two, as he was able to get his head down and push on even when there was chaos all around.
Alonso did eventually overhaul Vandoorne with three points finishes right at the end of the season, but it was certainly a valiant effort from Stoffel. Not so valiant were the Belgian’s efforts on Saturdays in 2017, where Alonso obliterated him with a score of 16-3. Two of those three were after the summer break when Vandoorne was clearly more at ease with the car, so hopefully this bodes well for him for 2018.
Both drivers were retained by the team for 2018.
Best & worst weekends
As mentioned above, Hungary marked the first, and sadly only, time that both McLarens scored points in 2017, making it far and away their best performance of the season. It was also one of the few times that they managed to get both cars into Q3, qualifying eighth and ninth. It was also here that Alonso scored the team’s best finish of the year (sixth).
We thought at the time that this might mark a turning point in McLaren’s season, especially as Alonso beat both Force India drivers to the line. However, things didn’t really improve from here, and the team wallowed just outside the regular points scorers for the rest of the season.
If picking out McLaren’s best weekend was easy, then picking their worst is somewhat more difficult. There are just so many to choose from! But, if pressed, I would probably go with Monaco.
For a team such as McLaren, with an illustrious history filled with successes around the streets of Monte Carlo, 2017’s race must have been a hard one to endure. Not only had their star driver dodged F1’s prestige event to go race at the Indy 500, but both cars of Vandoorne and one-time deputy Jenson Button failed to finish.
Even more galling were the manner of the retirements, as having qualified in the top ten, both cars then crashed out of the race, Button via an incredibly ambitious look up the inside of Pascal Wehrlein at Portier, and Vandoorne by sliding off the track at turn one.
McLaren made a big deal of the fact that they had ‘entered’ both the Monaco Grand Prix and the Indy 500, but given the eventual results of both (Alosno retired at Indy with, you guessed it, a Honda engine issue!), they really should have saved themselves the time and effort.
Looking to 2018
2018 cannot possibly be worse for McLaren… can it? They have cast off the dead weight of Honda and aligned themselves with Renault, whose engines won three races in 2017 in the back of the Red Bulls of Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen. Should the team be able to deliver a comparable aero package for 2018, then you have to think that the Woking-based team have a shot at returning to the sharp end of the grid next year.
It certainly won’t be this easy though. For one, the team now have to incorporate a new power unit (including all the bits like the turbo, MGU-H etc.) into their new chassis design, and as we have seen from Mercedes’ power compared to their rivals using their power unit, setup counts for a lot, and McLaren certainly won’t have the setup or design experience with this new engine that the likes of Red Bull have had over the better part of the last decade.
That said, I would fully expect them to be a massive step ahead of where they were in 2017. Knowing Fernando Alonso’s luck though the 2018 Honda engine will be a world beater and Toro Rosso will sweep both titles…
I seriously wouldn’t rule it out with that man’s unfortunate career decision record.