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Formula 1 2017 team preview: McLaren

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Following a bumpy start to life back with Honda in 2015, McLaren came on leaps and bounds through the 2016 Formula 1 season, ending the year a solid sixth in the constructors’ championship.

While it remains far-off where McLaren wants (and, some may say, deserves) to be, the result marked a significant step forward after a troublesome period.

So entering 2017, will be upward trend continue? Or was it the rise before a fall?

DRIVERS

2. Stoffel Vandoorne (Belgium)
14. Fernando Alonso (Spain)

CAR

McLaren MCL32

ENGINE

Honda RA617H

TEAM CHIEFS

Zak Brown (executive director)
Jonathan Neale (chief operating officer)
Eric Boullier (racing director)

MONTMELO, SPAIN – MARCH 10: Fernando Alonso of Spain driving the (14) McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team McLaren MCL32 on track during the final day of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on March 10, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)

What went right in 2016: The misery of 2015 was avoided, which was a big check-mark for McLaren. While Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button were unable to hassle the front-runners, both regularly appeared in the lower-reaches of the top 10. Alonso in particular squeezed all he could out of the car, putting in some mighty displays. It was a year of big progress for the team.

What went wrong in 2016: It still wasn’t where McLaren and Honda expected to be in year two. McLaren isn’t a team that should be consigned to P7 at best; it should be fighting for world titles year after year. The internal struggles may have affected things, but they eventually came to a head with Ron Dennis departing at the end of the campaign. 2017 marks the start of a very new era for McLaren.

What’s changed for 2017: As mentioned, Ron Dennis is no longer in charge, with American businessman Zak Brown instead taking the helm. Stoffel Vandoorne will get his big break in F1 after replacing Jenson Button, who has most likely made his final F1 start. The Honda power unit has changed layout (more on that later) as the Japanese manufacturer looks to make some big gains. And most obviously, the car is bright orange. Yep, the Dennis-ian era is well and truly over.

What they’ll look to accomplish in 2017: McLaren would have you think that it is aiming to fight at the front of the field and rediscover its past glories in 2017. The reality is a long way away from that. Trouble through pre-season testing with the Honda power unit left both Alonso and Vandoorne on the sidelines time and time again. Right now, McLaren would happily take a repeat of last year. Sixth in the constructors’ may be the best it can hope for.

MONTMELO, SPAIN – MARCH 09: A member of the McLaren team inspects the car of Stoffel Vandoorne of Belgium and McLaren Honda after it stopped on track during day three of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on March 9, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)

MST PREDICTIONS

Luke Smith: The first time I went to the McLaren Technology Center, I left asking myself how the team doesn’t win every single race. As a facility, it is spotless. The team looked to run in a superb fashion. And yet here we are, at the start of another season, and McLaren looks marooned. Honda’s plight has only deepened over the winter, with the change in power unit layout to try and mirror Mercedes’ offering backfiring. This year, I don’t see things getting any better. Alonso will drag the car kicking, screaming and spluttering to a few great results – by great I mean fifth at best, say – and Vandoorne will impress. But in the end, McLaren will end up worse off in the final standings than last year. How much longer can this go on?

Tony DiZinno: Oy. Launch day beckoned with excitement, anticipation, and a return to orange. The only concern that day was that it wasn’t the original McLaren orange. But suddenly weeks later, that lack of recapturing the original is manifested in the actual car. Whereas this isn’t the old orange McLaren color, this also isn’t the old McLaren-Honda that was a race winner or championship contender. An utter nightmare of a test season has brought the word “crisis” into play and for a team that needs this year as that next step forward, a huge step back could have severe consequences. You desperately want McLaren-Honda to be good… but is it really attainable?

Kyle Lavigne: Simply put: McLaren Honda had an awful outing during pre-season testing, with five of their eight days limited due to various mechanical ailments. After making progress with last year’s car, and its Honda power unit, both pieces have regressed mightily. Fernando Alonso was very vocal about their struggles, detailing that the car is both slow and unreliable. Rookie teammate Stoffel Vandoorne has indicated that the Australian Grand Prix will essentially be a test session. It is incredibly disappointing to see a team with so much history and accolades struggle so badly. Nevertheless, things do not look good for the Woking outfit and it’s very possible they could finish last in the championship, although you hope they don’t.

Alonso’s Honda power unit cleared for Malaysia after Singapore clash

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Fernando Alonso’s incredible start at the Singapore Grand Prix offered the possibility of huge points, before he got collected at Turn 1 in the wake of the Kimi Raikkonen, Max Verstappen and Sebastian Vettel start-line crash.

But with Alonso’s McLaren Honda getting speared on the left side of the car, there were concerns his Honda power unit had been damaged beyond repair ahead of this weekend’s Malaysian Grand Prix.

Somewhat fortunately considering the fractured and now set-for-divorce Alonso, McLaren and Honda relationship, Honda has confirmed this power unit was actually OK despite the first lap contact in Singapore.

“We were concerned that it may have been irreparably damaged, but fortunately after a thorough check back at the Sakura factory we can confirm it is okay to be re-used,” said Yusuke Hasegawa, Honda R&D Co. Ltd Head of F1 Project & Executive Chief Engineer.

Alonso, of course quite frustrated to have lost out on a potential big points haul in Singapore, is hoping similarly changeable conditions could give McLaren Honda a spark in Malaysia this weekend. Stoffel Vandoorne fortunately picked up six points for the team with seventh place there, his best result of the season and his career thus far.

“After Singapore, I’m already eager to get back into the car and hopefully make it further than the first corner in Malaysia! Of course, what happened was disappointing and it’s difficult to hide your frustration when you’re the victim of someone else’s incident. I felt we had the potential to be really competitive – one of our only opportunities of the year – and it’s a shame we couldn’t bring home the points to prove it, but these things happen,” he said.

“The conditions in Malaysia will be very similar to Singapore – hot, humid and challenging for the drivers and the car. The configuration will work less in our favor, but of course we will still fight for everything. There are six races left and we are still putting all our energy in finishing every race in the best possible position we can.”

Aston Martin to become Red Bull Racing’s title sponsor

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The link-up between Aston Martin and Red Bull Racing has now gone to the next level, with Aston Martin confirming Monday it will be Red Bull Racing’s title sponsor from 2018.

Key within the release was also the suggestion that Aston Martin will “evaluate the opportunity to be involved in the team’s power unit from 2021 after being asked by the FIA to join discussions on future engines for F1.”

Red Bull Racing’s engine situation is unclear after 2018, with Renault – badged as TAG Heuer – in the last planned year of its deal next season. Honda has entered the Red Bull racing umbrella thanks to its new deal with Scuderia Toro Rosso from 2018, and rumors of Porsche’s return to Formula 1 from 2021 have also swirled in recent weeks.

Rather funnily this means in 2018 that Red Bull Racing will have a car manufacturer be title sponsor for the energy drink company, with a watch manufacturer serving as the badged name of its power unit.

“Title partnership is the next logical step for our Innovation Partnership with Red Bull Racing. We are enjoying the global brand awareness that a revitalized Formula One provides,” said Aston Martin President and CEO, Andy Palmer.

“The power unit discussions are of interest to us but only if the circumstances are right. We are not about to enter an engine war with no restrictions in cost or dynamometer hours but we believe that if the FIA can create the right environment we would be interested in getting involved.”

Christian Horner, Red Bull Racing team principal, added: “Our Innovation Partnership with Aston Martin has been a pioneering project from day one. Having conceived and created the remarkably successful Valkyrie together in 2016, we extended our relationship this year and are now delighted to further strengthen the Partnership and see the team competing as Aston Martin Red Bull Racing in 2018. In addition, more than 100 Aston Martin staff will service the new Advanced Performance Centre on our campus here in Milton Keynes and it will allow us to collaborate further with Aston Martin on special, equally innovative, new projects.”

The Aston Martin Valkyrie, the hypercar produced by the two parties, has been their major product sign of investment together thus far. Per Aston Martin the car has sold out on launch, and will make its road debut in 2018 before being delivered to customers in 2019.

Personnel wise, the two parties have worked together to create the Advanced Performance Centre, which will create more than 100 new jobs and continue to build the relationship between F1 and road car technology.

NHRA: Brittany Force breaks through among Reading winners

Photo: Gary Nastase and Auto Imagery
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John Force saw one of his daughters break through in the Reading round of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series’ Countdown while another lost by a hair in the finals.

Brittany Force captured the Top Fuel win, her second of the season, for her first since in Epping, N.H. in June. The defeat of Steve Torrence came with a 3.756-second pass at 326.24 mph. She’d been to the finals twice at Maple Grove Raceway before winning Sunday.

“Looking at it, we did not have an easy ladder,” Force said. “It was tough all day long and the Monster team killed it all day long. We turned a corner at the right time and we’re right in the Countdown picture.

“This is a huge win for us. This team had to fight all day long and I’m so proud of them. They are the best team to work with, and I’m so pumped going into the Countdown to work with them. This Monster team, we’re going after the championship.”

Courtney Force came up short in Funny Car, losing out to Ron Capps, who secured his seventh win of the season. Capps’  pass came at 3.968 seconds to Force’s 3.993, and Capps took over the points lead in the process.

“We got lucky a little bit in the first round, but we feel like our hard work makes our own luck for us and we were fortunate to win it with consistency,” Capps said, via NHRA.com. “We know this Funny Car class is as tough as it’s ever been, so we know this won’t be easy through the last four races of the year.”

Bo Butner (Pro Stock) and Eddie Krawiec (Pro Stock Motorcycle) took the other two class wins on the day.

IMSA: Dramatic finishes, popular winners at Mazda Raceway

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The penultimate round of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca featured three first-time winners this year in the Prototype, GT Le Mans and GT Daytona classes – all of whom boast fascinating stories.

In Prototype and overall, Renger van der Zande and Marc Goossens delivered the first overall win of the year for an LMP2-spec car versus a Daytona Prototype international (DPi), and after a dramatic week for the Troy Flis-led VISIT FLORIDA Racing team.

Van der Zande and Goossens were only in their second race start with the team’s new No. 90 Ligier JS P217 Gibson, which replaced the troublesome Riley Multimatic Mk. 30 chassis run through Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in July.

Running second into the final few minutes of the two-hour, 40-minute race, van der Zande unleashed his inner Alex Zanardi at Mazda Raceway’s iconic corner, the Corkscrew, going down the inside of Penske Acura-bound Dane Cameron in his second-to-last race with Action Express Racing aboard its No. 31 Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillac DPi-V.R.

Cameron left the door open just enough for van der Zande to slide through, with his momentum carrying through the inside of the left-handed downhill apex and then back onto the right-handed second portion of the corner in line.

He pulled away from there en route to the team’s first victory of the year at a track where it had won before, as recently as two years ago with Richard Westbrook and Michael Valiante in a Corvette DP.

The win comes after a week when the Florida-based team, with the likelihood of change to its partner portfolio if VISIT FLORIDA support doesn’t continue into 2018, incurred damage at its shop from Hurricane Irma. Van der Zande joked on the FOX Sports broadcast after the race he might get a tattoo of the Corkscrew after the win.

With third place in their No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R, Jordan and Ricky Taylor built their points lead to an unofficial gap of 29 points over Cameron and Eric Curran, the defending champions, with one race remaining. The Taylors will be set to clinch the Prototype title at Motul Petit Le Mans by starting the race, on October 7.

The GT classes featured two other cool stories and maiden 2017 winners.

In GT Le Mans, John Edwards broke a long winless drought sharing his No. 24 BMW M6 GTLM with Martin Tomczyk, in the revised black livery for the BMW Team RLL car. Edwards held off Toni Vilander in the No. 62 Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTE at the flag, on a fuel save run.

The No. 911 Porsche 911 RSR was third ahead of the No. 3 Corvette C7.R, with points leaders Antonio Garcia and Jan Magnussen set to carry a 19-point lead over Westbrook and Ryan Briscoe in their No. 67 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT heading to Motul Petit Le Mans.

GT Daytona points leaders Alessandro Balzan and Christina Nielsen, in their anticipated second-to-last race together in the No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3 this year (Nielsen told RACER over the weekend she’ll leave the team at year’s end, following the end of her two-year contract), finally got on the board this year after a wealth of podiums but no wins.

Balzan moved into the lead following Colin Braun’s late splash for fuel, which denied the No. 54 CORE autosport Porsche 911 GT3 R lineup of Braun and Jon Bennett a potential first win in class.

Balzan and Nielsen have a 25-point lead over Jeroen Bleekemolen in GTD – Bleekemolen and Ben Keating finished eighth today in their No. 33 Riley Motorsports-Team AMG Mercedes AMG-GT3 – and are poised to wrap their second straight class title at Motul Petit Le Mans.

RESULTS