On the back of much-publicised quotes from Zak Brown and Eric Boullier at the Canadian Grand Prix last weekend there can be little doubt that the McLaren Honda partnership has either reached or taken a fork in the road concerning its future. McLaren has been patient, three years patient, but when Fernando Alonso climbed from the cockpit of his car towards the end of Sunday’s race and headed into the grandstands, it told a sorry tale. The double World Champion might better enjoy Formula One from a grandstand seat rather than driving a car whose straight line speed is more suited to junior formula.
Honda may be hoping that McLaren sticks with them, but in the event that Brown, Boullier & Co determine that their immediate future is best placed in the hands of a customer programme from Mercedes Benz, the Japanese manufacturer has some thinking to do. It has already announced a new relationship with Sauber in 2018, but this cannot be viewed as a serious proposition for Honda if it has genuine aspirations to be a World Championship contender during the balance of the current engine regulations.
Intriguingly, the reality of a divorce from McLaren could potentially give Honda the impetus that has been lacking so far. If the negative publicity concerning the catalogue of failures has not yet reached the darkest recesses of Honda HQ in Tokyo, you can be sure that a split with McLaren will lead to the senior leadership opting to redouble its efforts to turn the tide in Formula One. At least it should do, unless they decide to quit. Central to that reset will be determining who to partner with as the works-team going forward.
Many people have said that Red Bull Racing ought to be the next port of call, but in reality a combination of Honda’s continued development phase and Red Bull’s impatience with anything other than immediate race-winning capability makes that unlikely. It’s difficult to imagine Dr Marko recommending to Dietrich Mateschitz an engine partner that makes Renault look positively stellar. If Honda’s Mr Hasegawa has had some difficult conversations with McLaren management, it would pale when compared to the hair dryer treatment he would receive from Dr Marko.
The team Honda ought to partner with is Williams, and for a number of good reasons. A team which has won 9 Constructors and 7 Drivers titles is one, and so too the fact that Honda and Williams have decent heritage dating back to their partnership between 1983 and 1987.
Sir Frank Williams, his fellow shareholders and management board would dearly love to return to the winners circle, and for too long they have languished as a midfield team. Their ambitions have been thwarted by a lack of funding necessitating the need to take pay drivers of the calibre such as Pastor Maldonado and now Lance Stroll. The infrastructure at Williams headquarters in Grove, near Oxford, is good, thanks in part to the legacy of the BMW partnership which ended in 2005. Inevitably, however, the years of continuing alone and unsupported by either a car manufacturer or top-flight major sponsor have taken their toll.
Yet the team has more than simply survived in spite of these straightened circumstances, building a respectable portfolio of small-to-medium sized sponsors, diversifying its business interests with the Advanced Engineering division, and building a 2017 car which many feel should be 4th in the Constructors Championship. The FW40 is certainly a quick car, as evidenced by Felipe Massa who has qualified on average in 7th place this season if you ignore Monaco where he was caught out by yellow flags. Unlike Force India, a team with a budget some USD$20-30m lighter, Williams does not have a strong driver line-up however, and you can be sure their simulations tell a rather different story from the reality of where the team currently stands.
An opportunity to replace McLaren as Honda’s works team ought to be high on Williams’ agenda. The free power units and additional funding would transform the team’s ability to invest in the people and tools needed to return it to top-team status. Under the technical leadership of Paddy Lowe the team has someone at the helm who knows every aspect of what has made Mercedes Benz the dominant team of recent times. When he left the Brackley-based outfit he will have taken with him a deep understanding of the engine and chassis innovations which combined to give Mercedes the best performing and integrated design on the grid.
If a freshly energised Honda partnered with Williams, 2018 could be a genuine year of transition, as the team invests in human and technical resources, and Honda comes to grips with an engine programme that was premature and placed under too much pressure. With a strong driver line up, a Williams-Honda package could potentially be a genuine World Championship contender for the final years of the current engine regulations.