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Does McLaren's F1 technical reshuffle point to the true problems?

Does McLaren's F1 technical reshuffle point to the true problems?
Apr 27, 2018, 3:39 PM

Ever since McLaren announced last September that they’d have Renault engines for 2018, it was almost inevitable there would be fallout within the...

Ever since McLaren announced last September that they’d have Renault engines for 2018, it was almost inevitable there would be fallout within the technical team. Why? Because for the first time since signing Honda as partners for 2015, McLaren have nowhere to hide and the departure of Tim Goss, McLaren’s chief technical officer (chassis) has to be viewed in that light.

Painful though it is for this great racing team to acknowledge, they’re the third-best Renault-powered entry. Less politely put, they’re the slowest – and not merely the slowest of three slow teams, all handicapped by a sub-standard power unit. For as Daniel Ricciardo showed so brilliantly at the Chinese GP, the Renault R.S.18 bolted into the back of a Red Bull RB14 chassis is a PU of race-winning capability, even against the dominant Mercedes and Ferrari units that have more or less swept the board in the ‘hybrid’ F1 engine era.

Goss, 55, who joined McLaren in 1990, was one of a three-man team charged with leading the F1 team’s technical operations alongside Peter Prodromou, chief technical officer (aerodynamics) and Matt Morris, chief engineering officer.

His departure is likely to result in further technical re-organisation and McLaren yesterday confirmed they are “undergoing a review of technical operations as part of [their] programme to return the team to success.

“This is a proactive, ongoing process that addresses a broad range of factors across the organisation. More details will be given in due course. Until that time there will be no further comment.”

Seven win season; 2012 seems a long time ago

Lack of competitiveness is, alas, not a new start of affairs for McLaren – F1’s second most-winning team, behind Ferrari, with 182 grand prix victories. Not since the Lewis Hamilton era, pre-Honda, when they were a successfully Mercedes-powered operation, have they been front-runners.

Before Merc’s full ‘works’ return to F1 in 2010, McLaren were Mercedes’ lead partner and together they enjoyed title-winning success in 1998, ’99 and 2008. They remained a largely competitive force throughout the noughties and almost until the end of the ‘V8’ era: in 2012 Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button between them won seven Grands Prix. It was at the end of that year, however, that then technical director Paddy Lowe departed, notionally for Williams, Hamilton for Mercedes and – whether coincidentally or not – McLaren haven’t fielded a fully competitive chassis since.

In 2013, the last ‘V8’ year, McLaren were one of three Mercedes-powered teams, alongside the ‘works’ entry and Force India. That year McLaren finished fifth in the constructors’ table with 122 points, way behind second-placed Mercedes (360) and not far ahead of Force India in sixth (77).

They remained with Mercedes in 2014, the first ‘hybrid’ F1 season, but despite being blessed with a dominant power unit, McLaren struggled to fifth in the constructors’ table, with 181 points, not far ahead of Force India (also Merc-powered) in sixth with 155. Mercedes were consummately dominant champions with 701 points, while Williams, the fourth Mercedes-powered team, finished third, with 320. That was also the year of McLaren’s last podium placing – a 2-3 result at the Melbourne season-opener.

Sensing that McLaren’s competitiveness might be on the wane against ever-strengthening ‘factory’ entries, such as Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull, prepared to spend upwards of $400m per year on F1, former McLaren CEO Ron Dennis signed what seemed at the time to be a visionary strategic partnership with Honda. From 2015, McLaren would have the Japanese giant’s power units, $100m per season of Honda investment and the skills of Fernando Alonso at the wheel.

'It's the other guy's fault'

It should have been formidable, but as history records, the relationship turned sour, then went terminal in the middle of last season, as McLaren sought to blame Honda for the team’s woeful lack of performance. [For the record, McLaren-Honda’s modern-era championship scorecard reads: 2015 – 9th (27 points); 2016 – 6th (76 points) and 2017 – 9th (30 points).]

These past three Honda seasons, McLaren have been able to claim, with some credibility if not absolute conviction, that ‘the engine was to blame’. ‘With a better PU’, they said, ‘we’d be right up with Red Bull’. Last year, indeed, McLaren claimed their own corner speed traces showed their chassis to be a match for Red Bull’s.

Perhaps, during the Honda years, McLaren were achieving those impressive corner speeds by loading their car with draggy downforce, at the expense of top speed, and seeking to attribute lack of performance to weak Honda motors.

The team deny this is the case, but the suspicion remains and regardless, any such practice would be out of the question now McLaren are once again running engines directly comparable to those installed in competitor chassis. And as Pierre Gasly’s stunning Bahrain P4 in a Toro Rosso-Honda confirmed, scapegoating Honda doesn’t wash any more – even less so when a McLaren-Renault has yet to out-qualify another Renault-powered car this season (disregarding Bahrain, where Max Verstappen crashed out of Q1).

Indeed, what early 2018 results, and Goss’s departure, have shown is that McLaren are finally looking to themselves to address their own technical shortcomings and find solutions for lack of performance. It’s not the power unit; it’s certainly not Fernando Alonso, so…

McLaren have promised a major chassis upgrade for the Spanish GP next month, where they say we’ll see their “true” 2018 car. We watch and wait…

All images: Motorsport Images

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