Reflections with Richard Williams: October 2017

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McLaren remains in a trough, having not recorded a podium finish since Australia 2014, but lately there have been flickers of genuine hope

The party thrown by the team in the Hungaroring paddock for Fernando Alonso’s 36th birthday was not, thank goodness, the only sign of life at McLaren this summer. Such an ugly season for the Woking outfit – such an ugly few seasons, in fact – had even made the once unimaginable prospect of the venerable team’s demise start to cross a few minds. Could McLaren really have been about to go the way of Cooper, BRM, Lotus and Brabham? But seventh and eighth places on the grid for Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne in Budapest were followed by sixth and 10th places in the race, easily their most convincing collective performance of the season.

At last they had some points to add to the two awarded for Alonso’s ninth place in Baku. Over the weekend in Hungary, indeed, they were the fourth best team overall, behind only Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull. That’s a great deal better than floundering down among those struggling to stay afloat on minimal budgets.

The continuing absence of a title sponsor is the legacy of Ron Dennis’s refusal to compromise on what he felt such a privileged association was worth. Now that Dennis is no longer in the picture, the search for a major benefactor in a testing economic climate will surely be eased if the signs of improvement evident in Budapest are maintained in the second half of the season.

In the modern version of Formula 1 it is harder for big teams to disappear completely – unless, of course, they represent a manufacturer whose commercial strategy suddenly shifts away from racing. But the more substantial independents have built up a value that can help them survive difficult periods. In the past there was no such safety net to catch even those who had won world titles, never mind the humbler likes of Connaught, Surtees, Hesketh or Arrows. But it is only just over 20 years since Lotus – the real Team Lotus, that is – had its life-support system finally switched off. By the standards of another era, McLaren and the equally underperforming Williams would have disappeared already. And never say it couldn’t happen again.

Perhaps the tight configuration of the Hungaroring suited the driver-friendly characteristics of the team’s MCL32 chassis while minimising the deficiencies of Honda’s RA617H power unit.

But at Silverstone two weeks earlier, although Alonso retired and Vandoorne finished only 12th, there was encouragement after the pair posted qualifying times of 13th and ninth fastest respectively (until a 30-place grid penalty had the Spaniard effectively starting the race from somewhere down the A43 in the direction of Towcester). So perhaps the improvement in performance is beginning to take effect over the whole range of conditions.

The team that said a final and not overly fond goodbye to Dennis in June is still in the long, dark tunnel it entered after winning the last race of the season in 2012, when Jenson Button snatched a win in Brazil. There have been times in the past five years when it looked as though McLaren would not be able to repeat the resurrection begun when Dennis took over the team in 1981.

Its fortunes bottomed out two years later when neither Niki Lauda nor John Watson managed to qualify for the Monaco Grand Prix, but the following year Lauda and Alain Prost won 12 of the 16 rounds of the championship, and the new team principal was on his way to Formula 1 immortality. Dennis also managed to pull them out of another slump in 1994, the post-Senna season with Peugeot engines.

Whenever their fortunes flagged, however, a certain amount of schadenfreude was in evidence among observers who were not paid-up fans of a racing philosophy that expressed itself in Ronspeak, a language influenced by management handbooks.

Dennis’s pompous and stilted locutions made him the butt of endless jokes, although no one had a right to laugh at a record of 12 championship titles for drivers and another eight for constructors, all won during his time in charge.

Yet there seems little doubt that his departure will have lifted the clouds hovering above the team’s £200m technology centre, the house that Ron built. Eric Boullier and his staff will be freer to pursue a path to a more successful collaboration with Honda – although the problems of the last three years have reminded many observers of the Japanese company’s disconcerting habit of vanishing at short notice, whether due to a lack of success on the track, as in 1968, or a fear of the effects of a recession on their core business, as in 2008.

Two podium finishes in the past five seasons – both in Australia in 2014 – represent a wretched return for a team boasting 182 wins from 812 Grands Prix. But it is not half as humiliating as the failure even to get cars on to the grid, which happened twice in 2015 and twice again this year. When world champions like Button and Alonso are left kicking their heels, the shame is redoubled.

An unbroken half-century in Grand Prix racing gives them no divine right to indefinite survival. But few people, even those who found it difficult to warm to them during the Dennis era, would want to see them go, particularly after such a gruelling struggle.

If the team’s sorely tested faith in Honda is eventually rewarded, there will be rejoicing far beyond the leafy lanes of Woking.

A motor racing aficionado from an early age, Richard Williams worked for many years as The Guardian’s chief sports writer

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