They say breaking up is never easy and, if the Red Bull-Renault divorce is anything to go by, we can only be glad that there aren’t any children involved. The relationship is at an end, and the excitement they shared during the heady days of 2009 to 2013 is a distant memory.
Down at McLaren Honda, meanwhile, things have not gone quite that far, but it will be of deep concern to both parties that after six months they need marriage counselling. McLaren needs some action, and Honda has a headache.
For all the complex technology involved in Formula One, successful collaboration between teams and technical partners comes down to people. That means having an agreed strategy and tactics underpinned by mutual respect, trust and reliance. Once these bonds are broken it can be very difficult to find a way back.
The crisis facing both these pairings is bad news for them, and bad too for a sport which needs these teams to be competitive at a time when Mercedes Benz and Lewis Hamilton have run away with the ball.
Until 2013, of course, Formula One engines were a commodity item, a plug-and-play solution. The 2.4 litre V8’s were relatively unstressed, reliable, and well matched when you looked at the marginal trade-offs in terms of horsepower, torque, drivability and fuel consumption.
With the advent of the 2014 hybrid powertrain regulations, however, every team in the pit lane ought to have recognised that Formula One was not only entering an era of engine-defined performance, but that it would be essential for the relationship with their engine partners to be the primary focus.
This clearly didn’t happen with Red Bull Renault, and perhaps it is easy to understand why.
One suspects Red Bull Racing felt pretty confident that their 8-times title winning partner would do a fine job, and equally that Renault Sport had been lured into a false sense of security about its own products. However, the 2010-13 titles were much more about aero than engine, and it is surprising that the ultimate lack of straight line performance from the French company’s V8 did not ring alarm bells when it came to developing the hybrid V6.
Whatever the reasons behind Renault’s failure to live up to Red Bull’s expectations, the human relationships between team and engine partner ought to have been well enough matured to see them through difficult times.
Knowing a little about the personalities involved, however, it is disappointing but not entirely surprising that in this regard they have failed. It’s much easier to redesign a failed piston than a broken relationship.
At McLaren Honda the relationship is not new, of course. They had a memorable and passionate tryst back in the late 1980’s and early ’90’s. Reflecting on past conquests can be a dangerous thing, however, for when you decide to rekindle an affair you can sometimes quickly rediscover why you broke up in the first place.
McLaren, a great team in need of an equally ambitious partner, was always going to rely on Honda to deliver best-in-class performance very quickly. Honda, only a few years after the underwhelming achievements of its eponymous F1 team, needed McLaren to give them a car and drivers capable of winning. On the face of it, only one of the partners in this relationship has delivered, while the other seems strangely unable to make the commitment required.
Honda has looked ill-prepared and lacking in understanding of both the technical challenge and the urgency with which issues have to be tackled. Indeed, it can be argued that another year of customer engines would have been better for McLaren, and given Honda the time to develop.
Six months into this relationship, they both look embarrassed. In a press conference in Monza last weekend Honda’s current management reverted to type; accepting public criticism would have meant loss of face, so instead they went on the defensive and ignored reality.
This is bad. When a relationship hits a bump anyone will tell you that the first thing to do is to admit there are problems, and be honest in assessing them.
When Honda was in Formula One in the 1980’s, the company was guided from the very top by Nobuhiko Kawamoto, head of Research & Development and later CEO. He also happened to be an engineering veteran of their 1960’s Formula One programme. He understood very well the sense of urgency and focus on delivery that is an essential ingredient within the mindset of leading Formula One teams. Now aged 89, maybe he could give the current generation at Honda some sage advice.
More than anything else it will be Honda’s willingness to change its approach to the McLaren relationship which will determine whether they can stop throwing barbs at each other and talk through the issues. It is a big ask for the Honda hierarchy, and will require considerable patience on the part of McLaren. If they can do that, perhaps they can put the stormy start to their relationship behind them, and avoid it becoming a regrettable fling.
Who knows, they may still make a happy couple.