Battling the legacy

Battling the legacy Motor Racing – Formula One World Championship – Chinese Grand Prix – Race Day – Shanghai, China

McLaren and Honda are united again. Expectations are high. Problems are numerous. Life is busy for racing director Eric Boullier.

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In their first partnership from 1988 till 1992, McLaren Honda won four drivers’ and four constructors’ championships. The team pocketed 44 wins in 80 races including 53 Pole Positions. Ayrton Senna won the drivers’ crown in 1988, 1990 and 1991, and Alain Prost in 1989. The 1991 constructors’ title was Honda’s sixth and so far final as an engine supplier in motorsport’s elite category. There is no better way to describe sheer dominance than with these figures. However, these days are long gone and the reunion is developing far less smoothly.

Tough conditions

According to the outfit’s racing director Eric Boullier “McLaren is 50% behind schedule on its testing schedule” and time is flying. Several electronics issues, engine troubles and a repeatedly broken seal on the MP4-30’s MGU-K have hindered McLaren veteran Jenson Button and new teammate, Fernando Alonso, from getting their desired number of test laps under the belt. At the first test in Jerez, McLaren managed just 79 laps (next fewest: Red Bull 166). At the second test In Barcelona, McLaren’s total improved to 124. Not an impressive figure. However, after nine testing days last year, Red Bull had completed just 176 laps, but they ended the season second in the constructors’ championship, and they were the only other team apart from Mercedes to win a race. However, the drawn comparison is not entirely fair, because McLaren has no other engine customers.

The capture of double world champion Alonso represents a significant coup for the new McLaren-Honda partnership.

In 2014, there were four Renault-powered teams, including Red Bull. Plus, McLaren will not have the benefit of additional running in between the final test and the first race, having used up all promotional filming days. Even worse, the star driver Alonso crashed heavily at the final test in Barcelona under mysterious circumstances and had to be hospitalised. Although the accident had allegedly only been caused by sudden gusts of wind, the Spaniard is doubtful for the season opener in Australia. CEO Ron Dennis denied that his driver had been concussed and told reporters “he’s devoid of all injuries.” Dennis did, however, not explain why a person with no injuries was kept in hospital for three entire days. Thus, what is supposed to become a dream marriage does hardly look like it in these early stages. Then again, a fantastic pre-season does not necessarily mean championship success. McLaren can overcome it, but whether they will is another question. A good first step would be showing up in Melbourne with a car and an engine that can complete 58 laps at something approaching full power.

Marriage of convenience

On 19 December 2005, Alonso announced his move to McLaren for 2007. Testing an unbranded MP4-21 in Jerez in December 2006 marked the start of an eventful, but the disastrous season for the double world champion. Cashing a reported GBP 20 million, Alonso secured his first win for McLaren in only his second race, the Malaysian Grand Prix. Ahead of the Hungarian Grand Prix, he had won three times but was already an unhappy runner-up to his rookie teammate Lewis Hamilton in the world championship standings. He did not speak to the Brit anymore and rumours solidified, he would leave the team again by the end of the season, two years earlier than his contract allowed.

During qualifying Alonso held Hamilton up in the pit lane, denying the latter a chance to record a final lap time. The stewards dropped Alonso five places to sixth though, while Hamilton started on the pole and won the race. Annoyed by his team, the Spaniard revealed new evidence in the ongoing espionage scandal between McLaren and Ferrari, dubbed “Spygate”, largely consisting of email traffic between him and test driver Pedro de la Rosa. Alonso and de la Rosa had obtained and used confidential Ferrari technical data and sporting strategy information from senior McLaren engineer Mike Coughlan via Ferrari employee Nigel Stepney. Both drivers were spared sanctions in exchange for providing evidence, while McLaren was stripped of all points and sentenced to pay a fine of USD 100 million. Alonso went on to finish third in the driver’s championship, level on points with team-mate Hamilton and just one point behind World Champion Kimi Räikkönen, who took the crown by winning the season closer in Brazil. McLaren and Alonso mutually agreed to terminate his contract and he would be free to join any team for 2008 without paying McLaren any compensation.

The capture of double world champion Alonso represents a significant coup for the new McLaren-Honda partnership but also means hard work for Boullier to keep the ambitious and competitive Spaniard entertained, while the project hopefully gets up to speed. “I know it’s going to be challenging, [but] you have to take it as a huge positive. We gain the best driver in the world today, and having made Fernando stop his last two years of contract with Ferrari to join us means a lot for me – it means he believes in what we are building.” Most of us remember the often lacklustre displays of Red Bull Racing ace Sebastian Vettel who did not get along at all with his completely revamped 2014 version of his previously beloved race car. Fortunately, Boullier’s other driver, Jenson Button, is much easier to handle, although no less competitive.

Relativizing expectations

The Frenchman’s task doesn’t get any easier considering his boss’ masterplan. “We want to close the gap with Mercedes and they did an amazing job last year. Thus, we have to do an outstanding job”, Ron Dennis said, when the Woking-based team announced the partnership with the Japanese engine boffins. The 41-year-old wasted no time toning down Dennis’ statement, claiming the expectations were “firstly to work jointly as one team.” Despite all the teething problems, Boullier is convinced that the companies have already grown together well. Any cultural differences have been tackled from day one and we have constant communication channels between Sakura, Woking and Milton Keynes. “McLaren is on top of every procedure and process, and that is very useful for Honda – and vice versa. We benefit from the huge resources from Honda. So we will be successful.”

Relating to the old Formula 1 saying “To finish first, you have to finish first”, the former Lotus team boss believes it may take until the start of Formula One’s European season before the team can get fully up to speed. “We will not be as ready as we would like but we have covered most of the issues and most of the systems. Everything is working as per design and plan. Reliability is still a concern and I am not sure how long it will take to fix it. But I think it will take a few races. We should be ready by Europe to be more competitive.” The so-called “European season” starts in May, when the Formula 1 circuit holds the Grand Prix of Spain, the first of a total of eight races on the continent. For the season-opening event in Australia, Boullier would be content to “see the chequered flag with both cars. That would be a major step for this new technology, to run for that long. And then the performance will come. We have been brave enough to work with Honda on the ultimate performance of every part of the car. So we know we have a performing tool – now we have to make sure we can race and develop the tools to exploit the car. From that point, we will be successful.”

Fighting for the future

And being successful is key. Not just for McLaren, but also for Boullier. Should the qualified engineer fail to make his outfit perform according to Dennis’ absolute taste, his days are numbered. Taking the helm at McLaren at the start of the 1980s, Dennis has turned the British team into the sport’s second most successful operation, earning no less than seven out of eight constructors’ titles and 157 of 182 Grands Prix wins. To Dennis coming second means “coming first of the losers.”

In 2010, Renault sold a majority stake in the team to Genii Capital, a Luxembourg based Investment Company, and Boullier was installed as a new team principal replacing Bob Bell, who returned to his post as technical director. The team’s leading driver Robert Kubica earned three podiums including second place in Australia with anything but a top car. In the season closer, teammate Vitaly Petrov fought off a fiercely attacking Fernando Alonso deciding the world championship in favour of Sebastian Vettel, in a Renault-powered car. At the end of the season, Lotus Cars announced a partnership with Renault F1 that saw the British sports car manufacturer become the title sponsor of the team. Genii Capital kept full ownership of the team, with former owners Renault retreating to a position as engine supplier only. The new Lotus Renault GP team kicked off the season with two podiums (Petrov 3rd in Australia, Nick Heidfeld 3rd in Malaysia), but then the performance dropped dramatically and Boullier was facing his written notice. However, excellent preseason displays and the arrival of star driver Kimi Raikkonen distracted the bosses and the Frenchman was allowed to carry on. The “Iceman” was immediately back to his old pace fighting for the title and pocketing the team’s first GP win under new leadership in Abu Dhabi.

Teammate and Boullier’s protégé Romain Grosjean was also fast, but too boisterous and later in the season suspended for causing several crashes. In 2013, Raikkonen won the season opener in Australia and also Grosjean was vastly improved to give Boullier another great season. His work had impressed Dennis, who lured the Frenchman to McLaren. Already ahead of his move, Boullier was aware that “it will be a huge challenge” because his new employer’s team was undergoing reconstruction. 2014 was a classic year of transition. Previous main sponsors Vodafone were gone, the engine contract with Mercedes was coming to an end, and the outfit recorded a surprising double podium in Melbourne, but no more. Quite unusually Dennis gave Boullier his head, knowing that all eyes are set on the reunion with Honda for 2015. But now, the Group CEO wants to see progress, massive progress, and quickly. If that’s not the case, already at the start of the European season, somebody else may run the team at the track…

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