McLaren is preparing for a return to one of its spiritual homes, the iconic Suzuka Circuit, near Nagoya, where it was once showered with frenzied adulation.
The Honda-powered dream team featuring Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost… titans of the sport. McLaren netting four-straight title doubles, 1988 its greatest-ever season with 15 wins from 16 races. Almost the perfect campaign.
Since 1991, McLaren, while cyclically competitive, has only won a single constructors' championship and three drivers’ titles. In 2008, with Lewis Hamilton and back-to-back crowns for Mika Häkkinen.
… and those world titles were powered by German marque, Mercedes.
… which McLaren has now confirmed it will return to, from 2021 until at least 2024, with Mercedes’ head of motorsport Toto Wolff welcoming the increased competition.
“We hope that this new long-term agreement marks another milestone for McLaren as they aim to take the fight to the sport’s top teams, including our Mercedes works team,” he said.
It is, however, another step away from a top team’s usual need for exclusive support from a manufacturer, known as works power. A point that former boss Ron Dennis outlined during its recent Honda era.
SOUNDBITE (English) RON DENNIS,
“Our view, sometime ago, was that if you want to win a World championship then we had to form a partnership with a technology-led organisation, a technology-led OEM. In our case Honda, who really had a vision, a history and a proven ability to get to the top.”
It’s an ethos that Red Bull also acknowledged, when it signed Honda in the aftermath of its fallout with McLaren.
So the squad’s move to again be a customer team…as it is with Renault is somewhat baffling. Unless Mercedes is leaving F1 at the end of 2020, continuing just as an engine supplier.
But on this - Silver Arrows motorsport boss Wolff has been unequivocal.
“This is a customer power unit relationship,” he said, “And not the start of a works deal, and us not being there any more.”
Works power aside, there’s no doubt 2019-spec McLaren is a resurgent force with strong leadership in McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown, team boss Andreas Seidl - and technical director James Key.
The squad has also learnt lessons from the failed Honda project, which were largely internal. The split bringing the ugly truth to the surface that McLaren may not have the best chassis in the pit lane.
… which transformed the culture within the team, evident at the squad’s 2019 launch at its Woking headquarters.
SOUNDBITE (English) ZAK BROWN,
CEO, McLAREN RACING:
“I think the atmosphere inside of McLaren, everyone’s really excited. All the men and women have been working so hard, day and night - as everyone at McLaren does to produce such a good looking race car. So, now we’re all very excited to see how fast our two drivers can make it go around Barcelona, and get ready for Australia.”
Behind the wheel, two hungry racers in Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris who are both keen to prove themselves. And stay long-term.
It’s an exciting proposition for the fans, as the former powerhouse British squad continues on its journey back to the top. And race-winning grunt from the Silver Arrows may just be the ingredient it needs to accelerate progress and return to the podium’s top step in F1’s new era.