By Joao Lamberio & The Judge 13
Murmurings continue of McLaren’s intentions to make their own engines. Having severed ties with Honda after three abortive seasons to resuscitate former glories, McLaren find themselves with Renault power and in so doing, become exposed to some ferocious competition in the face of Red Bull and a resurgent Renault team.
Thus far it looks a fairly seamless integration with caveats as to how testing can be misleading, but it’s becoming more apparent that plans to make an engine are accelerating as the 2021 F1 engine regulations became clearer. High on McLaren’s agenda is to relinquish traditional reliance on manufacturer support, the original vision that previous McLaren boss Ron Dennis had moving to Honda in 2015 – never to rely on a customer engine.
With recent finger pointing this week between Red Bull’s Christian Horner and Claire Williams about customer engine parity, it is clear that there is an obvious distinction between the haves and the have nots in this complex hybrid PU engine formula; despite Williams’ line towing. Yes the PU is the same as the manufacturer ‘works team’ but lets be clear as to who’s employees are in Red Bull’s, Williams or any other customer team’s garage. The PU operations required at each race weekend, monitoring and advising on the software engine modes according to race strategy and situation is a task far too complicated for the lowly purchasers of a PU. For clarity, the individuals described here would be the engine manufacturers employees, not the race team, sitting at the back of the garage orchestrating F1’s destiny. Indeed how can anyone else apart from a manufacturer win a Championship now?
Recent revelations late last year of former Lotus F1 CEO Matthew Carter on Missed Apex Podcast, revealed that Mercedes PU engineers in the Lotus team garage allowed Romain Grosjean’s Lotus car a specific engine mode ensuring the lesser car (Lotus, now Renault) with the greater engine (Mercedes Hybrid), kept at bay a charging Ferrari, allowing the Frenchman an unexpected podium finish at Spa in 2015. Therefore it is patently clear, for McLaren to be a winning package, the rules of the game have not changed since Ron Dennis and they still need their own PU to be back at the front.
So how do they get one?
Ties with McLaren automotive the road car division, who are finally seeing some success and turning a profit, are in discussions with BMW for a joint engine programme that will be headed by McLaren and Ricardo engineering, with BMW on board for expertise and cost sharing and reduction. BMW in turn will use a variant of this engine for an as yet undisclosed M project Hypercar.
The board headed by Mansour Ojjeh (TAG Group) has pushed Mclaren away from the segmented structure with its clear delimitation between road and race teams, to a more amalgamated approach. The benefits, financially and of resources, can be shared across the company as a whole. It are these measures that have being taken to provide McLaren with the holy grail they have always sought, their own beating heart. The F1 team has aligned to this vision in a bid to have McLaren escape the manufacturer orbit, and become masters of their own destiny.
Zak Brown whilst initially coy, did give an optimistic assessment,
“I think the landscape in Formula 1 is going to change in a very positive way from ’21 onwards, with budget caps, revenue redistribution, and new engine rules”
Then came confirmation that an engine project was very much under consideration:
“We’re interested to see what the new engine formula is in 2021 – and whether we consider doing our own engine, or whether other people would come in under new rules”.
McLaren have been burnt by new people coming in under new rules (Honda), and would not fit in with McLaren Automotive’s vision of fully fledged engine builders.
The next option would be a continuation with Renault, which has advantages and disadvantages. Renault will have priorities not aligned to their supplied teams. The issue of sourcing engines from Renault also lacks the historical cachet of Honda, or the sheen of Mercedes-Benz. McLaren would also still be in the orbit of a supplier.
The ideal scenario for Brown to forge McLaren’s vision, relies on a swift solution to the 2021 engine regulations. Once these have crystalised, budgets can be formed leading to the promised land of an engine project, Brown continues:
“For us to do our own engine, that’s not something we’ve done before – We’d consider doing it. We just need to have an understanding of the platform, what are the rules, and what is it going to cost? We certainly wouldn’t be in a position to spend the hundreds of millions that it takes now to develop engines, so they’re going to have to change the engine formula for it to be something that economically would be viable for us.”
Initial plans have progressed, but are largely dependant on the outcomes of meetings still to be had by the FIA, engine supplier and teams. An initial project with an unnamed company in powertrains has been discussed, with the possibility of a joint programme that could yield either a go-it-alone engine, or even shared with a competitor, mimicking McLaren automotive’s strategy of sharing initial development. The possibilities here could lead to a “independent” engine initially, with McLaren spinning off from the project towards the later development phase. There could even be an era of cooperation between rival teams to McLaren such as Williams and Force India, who all could bring positive contributions to the ambitious project.
Rumours appear rife in the paddock as McLaren have hitched up to a long term partnership with Petrobras, which is not only limited to fuel supply but also dubbed “technology partnership”. This is telling, and gives a prelude to what McLaren are positioning behind the scenes with Renault in bed with Castrol, Mercedes Petronas, Ferrari Shell and Honda Mobil.The major obstacle in the way to McLaren building it’s own engine is money, but speaking at the Petrobras unveil, Brown was bullish as to their budgetary health. “We are on target for our financial goals for sponsorship revenue for this year, and I think again that will just build momentum”
With Petrobras, it is a piece of the puzzle required and one that has years of experience in F1 adding to the momentum Brown was pointing out. McLaren are also still without title sponsor, but with Renault power and a more consistent platform, a title sponsor will be inevitable this year, adding revenues to a team with grand designs on overcoming the odds to make their own engine. And they can look to their iconic founder for some much needed emotive inspiration.
“Life is measured in achievement, not in years alone”.