Continuity rewarded

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Lewis Hamilton takes three straight wins, but rivals have been less stable

The post-Ron Dennis evolution of McLaren under Zak Brown’s direction had simply lost faith in Honda. What had last year looked like light at the end of the tunnel turned out to be an oncoming freighter, an onslaught of trouble, foreshadowing a season in which the McLarens have been outpaced or broken down. As we came to the end of the European phase of this season, the marriage was in its final death throes, with the decree nisi confirmed in Singapore. It wasn’t pretty.

Honda was being pushed out; but it had a contract and was reluctant to leave, especially without another partner to go to. So, with the McLaren board in agreement that it was prepared to fund the divorce (surrendering a partnership said to be worth $100 million annually, in addition to the engine supply), the summer months had been spent desperately trying to facilitate an alternative for Honda so that an alliance with Renault could be struck. There was a deal to be done with Toro Rosso, the junior Red Bull team that costs its owner more to operate than the senior team because it attracts far less in terms of external sponsorship or FOM payments.

With Mercedes and Ferrari having been ruled out as McLaren’s saviours, Renault was the only one left – and it was prepared to supply, but not to a fourth team. As Renault Sport special advisor Alain Prost said in Monza: “We can supply either Toro Rosso or McLaren [in addition to Enstone and Red Bull], but not both.”

By that time, negotiations between Honda, Renault and Toro Rosso were well advanced. Liberty’s Ross Brawn and FIA president Jean Todt were both enlisted to the cause of making the switch happen – the last thing they wanted was to lose a valued automotive player. Meantime, McLaren and its driver Fernando Alonso continued to highlight the engine’s shortcomings in public – as if trying to embarrass Honda into going elsewhere.

From that perspective, Spa was a fairly typical 2017 weekend: under-delivery, multiple penalties and public criticism from Alonso. Scheduled as the race in which the ‘spec four’ engine would be introduced, Honda hadn’t completed reliability trials to its satisfaction and so only certain components of that package were fitted. This had entailed another replacement power unit for Vandoorne, and additional new ERS-h and other components meant he faced starting his home GP with a 35-place grid penalty before he’d turned a wheel. Another engine and gearbox change took that to 65! Alonso was, for once, starting unpenalised. With a bit of towing co-operation to ease the pain of their end-of-straight speed deficit, they each qualified for Q2, with Vandoorne then giving Alonso the benefit of another tow down the Kemmel Straight for Fernando’s final Q2 lap as he made a bid for Q3. It was all going well until he took Pouhon flat for the first time all weekend. This confused the algorithm of the Honda’s electrical power deployment system. Because he’d not lifted, the system assumed it was on a different part of the track that didn’t require the electrical energy assist. It lost him 0.5sec and he failed to make Q3 by 0.09sec. Using only throttle position and selected gear to deduce the car’s whereabouts on the circuit was never a bomb-proof system and McLaren engineers had months ago warned Honda it made them vulnerable to this. It happened on Saturday afternoon at Spa. Alonso stormed out of the garage after climbing from his car. During the Q3 session in which he took no part, Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes took a stunning, Schumacher-equalling 68th pole ahead of title rival Sebastian Vettel, each with career stats that Alonso will probably never match.

Next day, as the Mercedes and Ferrari fought out the lead on the Kemmel Straight on the opening lap, Alonso had the McLaren up to a remarkable seventh after a great start. But the early surrender of its deployment (because the engine can’t power the ERS-h as effectively) made him easy meat on the straights – Hülkenberg’s Renault flying by on the first lap, Ocon, Pérez and Grosjean in quick succession afterwards. “Embarrassing,” he fumed over the radio. After sinking out of the points positions, Alonso asked if there was any rain forecast. Shortly after being told there was none on the way, he claimed he felt an engine problem and retired. Honda later said it could find no problem… Vandoorne finished 14th. Hamilton won, under pressure all the way from Vettel, with Daniel Ricciardo an opportunistic third for Red Bull after mugging Valtteri Bottas at a safety car restart.

CONTRACTUAL CHESS

At Monza there were several urgent-looking meetings between McLaren, Renault, Toro Rosso and Ross Brawn. But still no confirmation. It was about who was paying whom, and how much? Why would Toro Rosso surrender its Renaults for Hondas? Because of the multi-million dollar improvement to its budget, for one thing. Yes, but why should Honda have to pay McLaren-level money to a much smaller, less capable team? Both those parties were playing hardball. Perhaps McLaren would like to contribute towards the budget Red Bull’s owner was asking to accept the Hondas for his junior team? Such intrigue almost overshadowed the fact Ferrari had produced a very ineffective low-downforce package, meaning its home race would be by far its least competitive of the season. Hamilton took a dominant pole on a wet track, 1.2sec faster than Max Verstappen’s Red Bull, with the Ferraris only seventh and eighth. McLaren? Alonso was taking a 35-place penalty for an additional engine and associated components. Vandoorne qualified for Q3 but suffered an ERS-k failure that couldn’t be replaced in time without changing the whole engine – thereby incurring a 10-place penalty. He ran 10th in the race before another ERS-k failure. Alonso, slowed by an upshift problem, made little progress before retiring. Hamilton and Bottas breezed to a Mercedes 1-2, with Vettel a very distant third and under big pressure from Ricciardo.

PARTNER SWAP

The split with Honda and new relationship with Renault were finally confirmed in Singapore. Brown was adamant that the commercial considerations were overridden by the sporting ones, and that ultimately they were one and the same. “The best thing for McLaren is to make the best sporting decision possible. Then the business will follow suit. We’re here to win, that’s what makes us commercially successful.

“The start of the pre-season test was when we knew we had a big problem. Ninth in the partnership’s first year was understandable and sixth was an improvement, but 2017 needed to be better than that and this year has been like year one, so that wasn’t going to work. We tried everything we could up until this point to work with Honda, help Honda, get them some help… but three years is as much time as you can give a programme without seeing the results we needed.”

McLaren and Honda spent the Singapore weekend presenting a picture of bonhomie and ‘no hard feelings’ after the McLaren-Renault/Toro Rosso-Honda announcements had been made. But no one was fooled: this has been deeply frustrating for McLaren, highly embarrassing for Honda. Its overall boss Masashi Yamamoto was present at Singapore, said all the right things about being disappointed the partnership had ended before reaching its potential and how much he was looking forward to working with Toro Rosso. “The team has a young factory and is growing, which for Honda is very important because we can work with the same mentality and have the same approach. If we compare both teams with different cuisines, let’s say McLaren is a very sophisticated French cuisine, that’s the way it is. Toro Rosso is more like a countryside, home-made delicious stew where you can add new ingredients. We’re excited by that.”

The engine had been further improved but still not to ‘spec four’ level. Around a track with one of the lowest power sensitivities on the calendar, the quality of the McLaren MCL32 chassis was quite evident, with both cars comfortably making it through to Q3. Unfortunately Alonso was caught up in the first-lap shunt triggered by Vettel, Verstappen and Räikkönen, his super start ensuring he was there to get involved. Instead of exiting the corner third, which he’d otherwise have done, he was way down the pack with a terminally damaged car. Vandoorne hung on for his best finish so far, seventh (three places behind Carlos Sainz’s Toro Rosso-Renault). The early retirement of three of the top four qualifiers flattered those results, of course – and also laid the way for Lewis Hamilton to win his 60th Grand Prix from fifth on the grid, putting himself in command of the title fight.

With rumours that Renault Sport had given Red Bull notice to terminate their agreement after the end of 2018, there seemed every chance that Honda’s Toro Rosso agreement would expand into the senior team from 2019. With a little help from its friends (Ilmor), could Honda become competitive enough to make McLaren’s decision look foolhardy in hindsight? Maybe so, but when the trust and belief has gone, it invariably becomes just about settlement terms. Hopefully, both parties can go on to better marriages.

WORD ON THE BEAT

Rumour and gossip from the F1 paddock

WILLIAMS is understood not to have succeeded in its bid to recruit FERNANDO ALONSO for 2018. In the wake of the annulment of the Honda partnership, his new McLaren deal was expected imminently at the time of going to press. The focus of Williams’s attentions then became ROBERT KUBICA, who was initially going to test the team’s 2014 car at Suzuka immediately after Singapore, the day after LANCE STROLL so as to give a direct comparison. The Strolls – who are understood to favour Paul di Resta as a potential Felipe Massa replacement – didn’t agree to make their cars available to test another driver. In theory the ultimate decision on the 2018 driver alongside Stroll would rest with PADDY LOWE. NICO ROSBERG has agreed to become part of Kubica’s management team and might well becoming involved in discussions with his former employer (he drove for Williams between 2006-09). Kubica has also been mentioned in connection with SAUBER and TORO ROSSO for 2018.

MERCEDES, HONDA and RENAULT want to retain ERS-h in the post-2020 engine formula. There is also a move to have electric motors on the front wheels, making the cars four-wheel-drive. Renault is against this on the grounds of weight. If the 2021 engine regulations are simplified, both McLAREN and RED BULL would consider independent engine programmes. Red Bull’s would potentially be a COSWORTH-BUILT/ASTON MARTIN-BADGED power unit, though with rumours of PORSCHEplanning to enter from 2021 with Red Bull, such a plan might not reach fruition.

FOM is aiming at imposing a BUDGET CAP OF $150 MILLION (less than half of the top current budgets) by 2021 – but there is as yet no unanimous agreement from teams on either the number or how it will be controlled and policed. McLaren’s ZAK BROWN said, “We’re a fan of budget caps. We think it’s important. Most other sports have it and it will equal the playing field. We recognise that we’re one of the four teams that [currently] get special payments and that might mean some compromise – but we feel if the sport is healthier ultimately that will benefit all of us… The $150million number sounds in the right ballpark.” Red Bull’s CHRISTIAN HORNER sounded caution, however. “We see things slightly differently. We’re fully in favour of reducing costs. I think the problem if you just introduce a budget cap with the current regulations is that we’ll end up employing teams of accountants to find smart ways of circumventing the current set of rules. I think the biggest cost-drivers are the technical regulations – and I think the FIA and FOM need to get those under control… and, of course, a key part of that is the engine. We’re sitting here today with enormous engine bills because of the technology involved in these power units.”

Zak Brown was keen to inspect the Benetton B194 that MICK SCHUMACHER demonstrated at Spa, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of his father Michael’s first Grand Prix win. The McLaren boss was in negotiation to purchase the car and had asked the current owner if he minded him bringing a couple of people to inspect it. The owner was fine with this, but was surely surprised at the identity of the two would-be inspectors: ROSS BRAWN and PAT SYMONDS. “Hey Ross, is it possible to check if the traction control is working?” joked Brown. “I don’t know anything about that,” replied Brawn, deadpan.

As the McLAREN-HONDA split was finally confirmed in Singapore (along with the related McLAREN-RENAULT and TORO ROSSO-HONDApartnerships), rumour was rife that Renault had informed Red Bull it was going to annul its partnership after the end of next season – potentially leaving Red Bull extending its Honda partnership to include the senior team in 2019-20. This could have a serious impact on Red Bull being able to retain DANIEL RICCIARDO and/or MAX VERSTAPPEN. With the second drivers at both Ferrari and Mercedes on one-year extensions, a serious shake-up could be coming for 2019.

Although HAAS has already announced that its ROMAIN GROSJEAN/KEVIN MAGNUSSEN driver line-up will be unchanged, rumours persist that FERRARI is trying to reach terms with the team to slot in its junior CHARLES LECLERC – the impressive 2017 F2 pace-setter. If this happened, Magnussen is expected to be the casualty and it would allow Ferrari to place its other junior ANTONIO GIOVINAZZI at Sauber. GENE HAAS is reportedly striking a hard bargain, though, and at Monza said: “I don’t think we rule it out, but from a business model it doesn’t really make a lot of sense. There’s no secret that it costs $60m to put a car on the track for the season. If someone gives you a driver – not just from Ferrari, from anybody – and they’re going to pay you five or six million dollars, there’s a $55m deficit there somewhere, so it doesn’t make sense to want to run let’s say a partner or a paid driver for compensation. I think our point of view has always been that we need to obtain points and that’s how we generate moving forward and making money, so that’s our business model. I think Ferrari respects that. If we could come to some mutual agreement, we would probably be more open to that.”

It was announced at the Singapore Grand Prix that the organisers have reached agreement with LIBERTY for a four-year extension to the contract, taking the race to the end of 2021, a year into what will be the new Concorde Agreement between teams, Liberty and the FIA.

TRACKSIDE VIEW RIVAGE & POUHON, SPA

Sound and sight drives home the power unleashed here

The bump in the Rivage braking zone is in the most inconvenient place imaginable – halfway across the width of the track and smack-bang in the middle of the line at a point where the cars are braking and cornering. So there’s a regular rubber smoke haze and, a few seconds later, its accompanying stench as those cars struggling for downforce or front tyre temperature exceed what is feasible.

Romain Grosjean is, predictably, the first to lock up, his ongoing battle with the team’s brake-by-wire system well into its second year. His attitude remains that the car should be able to be braked this late and hard and he refuses to accept its inept limitations. You can sense the frustration boiling within as his line and exit speed are compromised.

Using exactly the same brakes but a different brake-by-wire system and covered in more downforce, the Ferraris look fantastic, particularly that of Sebastian Vettel. Even though he’s on the medium tyre at this stage to the soft of Räikkönen, it’s Seb who carries a huge amount of entry speed, probably 4-5kph faster than a Mercedes at this point. When he encounters that awkward bump, the Ferrari just dips its nose slightly, as if in salute, then bobs back up. No tyre smoke, no visual drama – just the eye-opening entry speed. Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes is less lithe, a little clumsier, not as pinpoint precise, but he’s getting everything it has to give. Earlier in the weekend he’d explained how he’s been trying lots of different things through the season, trying to find the most appropriate way for this ‘diva’ of a car. He’s relying more on momentum than Vettel, not able to brake quite as late or as hard. In the sister car Valtteri Bottas is not coping as well, repeatedly locking the inner front as it hits that bump, pulling him out wide.

There is one car that looks comparably good to Vettel’s – Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull, but some of this is probably because he’s on a softer tyre. His confidence is building by the lap, each time around more adventurous in the braking zone and still the RB13 is taking it. Max Verstappen comes out as Ricciardo is already five or six laps into his run – and is straight up to speed, his dominance of the car instantly finding its grip limits.

A couple of corners on lies the challenge of Pouhon. With the more aggressive 2017 cars, is this now flat in eighth? It’s not quite so for the Mercs, Hamilton using a downshift to seventh but no brakes, just to trim the excess entry speed. Most others are doing the same – but not the Ferraris.

Late in the session, Vettel and Räikkönen are doing their first ultra-soft laps and there’s no hesitation from either. Down the hill they charge, flat in eighth on the approach, sparks flying, and the loud pedal stays nailed, only the grinding cornering forces upon the car pulling the engine note down, but still under full load. Attuned neurons and the limits of physics among the ancient valley.

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