Changes are plentiful at McLaren, its 2017 prospects
Where it’s been
McLaren began to claw the long way back to respectability last season, regularly achieving lower Q3 grid placings as Honda significantly improved the harvesting efficiency of its power unit. It was no longer running out of electrical assistance embarrassingly early but it still lacked ultimate horsepower. That made McLaren’s stated belief that it had one of the top three cars aerodynamically difficult to substantiate – especially as certain types of track could catch it out.
Although an improvement on 2015, it was still a woeful season by McLaren’s standards and it’s now gone four straight seasons without a win – the longest fallow period in its history. Presiding over it was Ron Dennis, whose contract was not renewed by the board amid considerable rancour.
Where it’s going
This is the beginning of the third era of McLaren, with newly recruited Zak Brown heading up the commercial and strategic sides of the team. It’s a very different style of leadership to Dennis’, with a skillset more in tune with the times.
But all that is more relevant to the team’s long term prospects than how competitive the MCL32 will be. Fernando Alonso has already made the point that as many questions hang over McLaren’s chassis as over Honda’s all-new power plant. Eric Boullier is optimistic, though. “This year’s rules reset is a valuable opportunity for us – it will allow us to make progress with what we feel is a well-ordered and clearly defined chassis-engine package, and hopefully to narrow the delta between us and the front-running teams.”
Honda has totally reconfigured its motor, abandoning the previous ‘turbo in the vee’ format, as it proved too restrictive on the size of turbine and compressor that could be used. It’s understood that the new power unit apes the standard-setting Mercedes architecture and that it incorporates Turbulent Jet Ignition for the first time. Such a big change has been described by Honda’s motor sport boss Yusuke Hasigawa as ‘risky’.
But behind all the uncertainty, the question of this team’s 2017 form might just be the most intriguing of all. It’s not impossible that the MCL32 is a flyer, nor that the Honda power unit is a massive improvement – and it arguably rivals Red Bull in the strength if its driver line up. “There’s a feeling around the factory that we’re about to turn the corner,” Boullier added. “Our relationship with Honda has blossomed – there’s a real sense of comradeship to what we do now – and I think we’re all very excited about what we can achieve together this year.”
Stoffel Vandoorne replaces the retired Jenson Button and promises to rival Max Verstappen as the stand-out of the coming generation. It will be fascinating observing both his progress and how the notoriously uncompromising Alonso deals with him.