Sochi bathed in intense sunshine on Friday, from the Black Sea waters to the snowy caps of the Caucasus Mountains, but one corner of the Formula One paddock remained wreathed in darkness. McLaren is a fabled marque, a byword for British success, and yet with each passing grand prix the team is sinking deeper into a mire unlike any in its 54-year history.
In the third year of its reunion with Honda, which was supposed to trigger a rush of nostalgia for the great duels between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, its bright orange car is not just dysfunctional but an embarrassment. Fernando Alonso, a double world champion, raged from the cockpit in Bahrain: “I have never raced with less power in my life.”
His team-mate, the richly talented Stoffel Vandoorne, has had his chances in Sunday's Russian Grand Prix strangled at birth after being handed a 15-place grid for using his fifth power unit in four races. F1’s rules only allow four during an entire 20-race season.
No wonder Alonso is sounding off, explaining with heavy sarcasm that it is not the pinnacle of his aspirations to finish 13th. As it stands, the chance of 13th place would be a fine thing. So far in 2017, neither Alonso nor Vandoorne have even taken the chequered flag. The Spaniard insisted in Sakhir a fortnight ago that he was wringing every last drop of performance from the bedevilled Honda engine, but still it spluttered to a halt three laps before the end.
For two years, McLaren have been able to pass off this vexatious situation as teething trouble. But their decline has, by any gauge, been stark.
Having last won a constructors’ title in 1998, they wound up fifth in 2014, a dismal ninth in 2015, and sixth last year. This campaign could be their worst in living memory, with their challenge less one of hauling in reigning champions Mercedes than of trying to overtake a Sauber. Titans have been reduced to makeweights.
Lewis Hamilton, who produced McLaren’s only world championship this century in 2008, is struck by the speed of the unravelling. When I ask whether he is shocked, he says: “They have a place in my heart. It’s definitely sad to see such a great team not be at the top. I think the most important thing is that McLaren don’t lose the heart and soul of what the team is all about, from when I loved them, before I joined them, and when I was racing for them. I really hope they find their way back to fighting ways.”
It is telling that the only thought sustaining Alonso here in Sochi is the prospect of switching, however fleetingly, to a different sport. Courtesy of the extensive connections in American motorsport of Zak Brown, McLaren’s executive director since the sidelining of Ron Dennis, Alonso is missing next month’s Monaco Grand Prix to take on the Indianapolis 500, in a quest to emulate Graham Hill’s ‘triple crown’ of glories in F1, IndyCar racing and the Le Mans 24 Hours.
Martin Brundle, the respected TV analyst who raced for McLaren in 1994, argues that if nothing else, it is a shrewd PR exercise. “Not only have they not moved forwards, they have gone backwards,” Brundle says. “Their biggest problem is that the engine concept is wrong, and it’s not an easy fix. They’re in redesign mode, which could take a long time. That’s why I think the Indy 500 is smart. It’s smoke and mirrors, a diversionary but clever tactic. Jenson Button coming back for Monaco is another story that distracts from the real issue. It gives Alonso something else to focus on, other than complaining about the engine.”
Alonso’s novel move is not without contention. Christian Horner, the Red Bull team principal, told Brown that he must be “barking mad” to let McLaren’s star driver miss the season’s blue-riband race in Monte Carlo for a transatlantic experiment that could easily backfire. After all, this is a man being paid £25 million a year to commit himself exclusively to F1.
That he is being indulged to this extent speaks of his employers’ desperation to keep him sweet.
For Honda, who chose to re-enter F1 amid great fanfare and endless invocations of the spirit of Senna, the debacle is acutely embarrassing.
Little is worse in the deferential culture of Japanese corporations than to lose face in public so spectacularly. Still, Yusuke Hasegawa, the cerebral head of Honda’s F1 project, does make an effort to confront the criticism.
“We are very disappointed with the current situation,” he says, having referred to the recurrent reliability issues in Bahrain as a “disaster”.
The task of reviving McLaren to respectability will be far from straightforward. There has been talk of the team activating their nuclear option, ditching Honda in favour of a Mercedes power unit freed up by the demise of Manor Racing. But such a decision would seem unconscionable.
McLaren are in year three of a decade-long deal worth around £77 million to the team, so severing ties would be exorbitant even for an organisation bankrolled by Bahraini royalty.
They are hamstrung, too, by the tyranny of distance, with senior management forced to intersperse their globe-trotting between races with visits to Honda’s base in Sakura to thrash out their difficulties. “It is a strained relationship, but a strong one,” says Matt Morris, the McLaren engineering director. “Things like this tend to bring you closer together. We have sat down like big boys and discussed among ourselves how we get out of it.”
McLaren claim that they have a “major upgrade” ready for the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona next month, and the hope of making it work is spelt out vividly by Brundle. “It’s a crisis for everyone,” he says. “For McLaren-Honda, for the fans, for F1. We need McLaren competitive. We don’t want a driver of the calibre of Alonso out of the picture, or a bright young star like Vandoorne. In this scenario, nobody wins.”