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MARCH 27, 2017

The dangers of playing hardball


"People in Formula One have very short memories", I was told a couple of weeks ago by Red Bull Team Principal Christian Horner when I asked him if the relationship between his team and Renault could ever fully recover from the very public fallout the two partners had during most of the 2014 FIA Formula One Championship.

For McLaren and Honda's sake, let's hope Horner is right, otherwise both company's immediate Formula One future could be in jeopardy as the current level of mutual trust seems to be lower than it was two years ago, when Honda was forced to enter Grand Prix racing one year too soon and was clearly unprepared for the task ahead.

In Melbourne, during the Australian Grand Prix, it was made clear, from McLaren's side that all options are on the table but no one went into the details, at least while speaking on the record. In private, though, sources from the team admitted there were ongoing talks with Mercedes with a return to German power on the cards for 2018. More surprisingly was an indiscretion from a source close to the team that McLaren was seriously evaluating the possibility of making the Power Unit switch during the current season, in spite of the huge financial and technical issues such a decision would bring to the Woking-based team.

In his usual style Fernando Alonso didn't lose one chance to publicly bash Honda, insisting at the end of the race - after spending more than half the Grand Prix in a points scoring position - the MCL32 was the slowest car of all and it was only his driving, "probably this was the best race of my career" and the trouble experienced by some younger drivers on a notoriously difficult track, that had help him mask such a fact.

Eric Boullier has been also adding oil to the fire, making openly clear that all of McLaren's issues come from the Japanese Power Unit at every single opportunity he has, as, like Alonso, he believes bullying Honda will make the Japanese react in a more efficient way to quickly find the solutions for all their problems.

Honda, in typical style, has not only refrained from throwing any stones at McLaren, but has gone to great lengths to admit in public that it accepts the blame for the team's poor form. On several occasions, during the Australian Grand Prix, Yusuke Hasegawa went on record to admit, "we haven't done a good enough job, so it's up to us to find the solutions for the problems." The quiet Japanese accepted that, "there a lot of pressure from the driver and the team, because in Formula One you cannot wait for solutions, you want them immediately" but was also keen to point out he's confident his company will fix all the issues as soon as possible: "I cannot guarantee when we can get the power, but as soon as possible of course we will try to introduce a new specification for that. But it is not a one-day job. In a month's time or two weeks' time I would like to try, but I cannot guarantee here. As soon as I can prepare that I am happy to introduce that."

It's perfect understandable McLaren is fuming with the current situation and Alonso's irritation is also to be accepted, for drivers are never patient people, but when we consider all the alternatives, McLaren would do better by refraining from publicly bashing its partner, because the implications of a termination of the contract could be devastating for the team.

Let's just look at the financial implications of breaking the contract at the end of this year: Honda would no longer put 60 million Euros on McLaren's tin every year and wouldn't pay Alonso's 34 million Euros salary either, so McLaren would immediately be 94 million Euros out of pocket if it would want to keep the genial Spaniard for 2018 - and why wouldn't they? Then you add the cost of paying Mercedes for its Power Unit and gearbox (22 million Euros, thank you very much!) - you get to a net loss of 116 million Euros per year. That's not even taking into account Honda might be entitled to compensation for breach of contract, so even though McLaren is owned by tremendously rich people - Mansour Ojjeh and an investment fund owned by Bahrain's Royal Family - billionaires are not known for throwing money away, so once cooler heads will prevail, McLaren will have to work hard to make peace with its partner and benefactor.

Honda, rest assured, is not ready to throw in the towel and will provide the amazing reaction Alonso has been demanding for a while. New parts, to overcome all the reliability issues, as well as to seriously increase performance, have already been designed, but need to be produced and tested before they're made available to McLaren at the races. There's also a drive to hire more engineers with Formula One experience regardless of their nationality and, in an unprecedented step, we have reasons to believe the Japanese wouldn't oppose to getting a top engineer, like Mario Illien, or a specialised tuning company, to help them overcome their problems that are, essentially, down to disappointing performance and lack of reliability of the Internal Combustion Engine.

Money doesn't seem to be an issue, technical capability neither, determination certainly isn't lacking, so it's just a matter of time before McLaren-Honda makes great strides and, at least, enters the battle behind the three top teams. If that comes in time to save the relationship remains to be seen but if results come, let's hope Horner's words are prophetic for the sake of this once great partnership.