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As a decision looms, how does the McLaren F1 engine puzzle fit together?

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The end finally appears to be in sight.

After three years of disappointment, anger, unfulfilled promises and frustrated radio calls – chiefly from Fernando Alonso – the long-mooted split between McLaren and Honda is on the horizon.

Last weekend’s Italian Grand Prix saw a number of crunch talks take place between the two parties as the clock ticked for a final call to be made.

Development of McLaren’s 2018 F1 car is well underway, and there is only so far it can get before knowing what power unit needs to run in the back, be it Honda or otherwise.

So how is the puzzle going to piece together?

DIFFERENT GOALS

The McLaren-Honda split is not an amicable one. It is not a ‘conscious uncoupling.’ It is McLaren saying enough is enough, asking Honda to pack up its things and leave.

Honda has long stressed its commitment to both McLaren and F1, not wishing for their partnership to end after just three years, having made continual promises of improvement and development.

We heard the same throughout 2015, and shoots of revival certainly showed the following year as McLaren shot up to sixth in the constructors’ championship, only for the decision to change the layout of its power unit to backfire badly this year.

Honda is now enjoying support from Ilmor Engineering to try and get back on-track, but promises have still been broken. The latest blow came at Spa when a promised ‘Spec 4’ power unit upgrade only turned out to be a ‘Spec 3.7’, falling short of the planned targets.

MONTREAL, QC – JUNE 09: Fernando Alonso of Spain and McLaren Honda after his car stopped on track during practice for the Canadian Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on June 9, 2017 in Montreal, Canada. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

McLaren’s frustration is understandable, yet there will be some big losses as a result of any possible split with Honda, mainly financial.

Honda is known to pump a significant amount of finance into McLaren’s F1 operation, thought to be well over $100 million per season, all things accounted for. It’s a figure that would be a dent in any team’s budget, yet for McLaren, it is not worth the sacrifice of being uncompetitive and toiling at the back of the field.

“We can’t afford not to be on the podium,” McLaren executive director Zak Brown said at Monza last weekend, via crash.net.

“It’s a big decision that has lots of elements to it, and economics are one. Fortunately, we have extremely committed shareholders that we can make a sporting decision and deal with the economics.

“We’re not financially challenged. We can navigate any financial situation.”

As far as McLaren is concerned, there is nothing Honda can offer to save the relationship except a good power unit for 2018 – and if a track record is anything to go by, you can forgive the British team for lacking confidence.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – MARCH 26: Jolyon Palmer of Great Britain driving the (30) Renault Sport Formula One Team Renault RS17 leads Stoffel Vandoorne of Belgium driving the (2) McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team McLaren MCL32 during the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park on March 26, 2017 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

RENAULT AS AN ALTERNATIVE

Given Renault’s struggles with its V6 turbo power unit and own saga with Red Bull back in 2015, when the team even considered linking up with Honda, there is a certain amount of irony that it has become McLaren’s only alternative for next season.

McLaren had initially hoped to rekindle its famed partnership with Mercedes that ran from 1995 until 2014, yielding titles with Mika Hakkinen and Lewis Hamilton, only for top brass at the German manufacturer to become wary of any possible deal.

Ferrari was only even a slim option given the acrimonious history between the two teams, leaving Renault as the only manufacturer in the sport that could help out.

Renault’s F1 engine involvement has been a strange one of late, given its ties with Red Bull at the front of the pack while its own works operation toils in the midfield, trying to rebuild after its revival for 2016. Should McLaren come on-board, it would have three teams looking for works-level support.

Renault officials were seen regularly heading in and out of McLaren’s motorhome at Monza last weekend as talks continued, but there remained an elephant in the room: the commitment it would be making by supplying a fourth team next year.

Both Mercedes and Ferrari have raced with three customer teams besides their own works operations in recent years, but for Renault, at a time when it is already under pressure to improve the quality and reliability of its power unit, a fourth supply would be difficult to manage.

It emerged at Monza that this was non-negotiable for Renault, leaving any deal with McLaren dependent on an unlikely pretender in all of this: Toro Rosso.

SPA, BELGIUM – AUGUST 25: Daniil Kvyat of Scuderia Toro Rosso and Russia during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 25, 2017 in Spa, Belgium. (Photo by Peter Fox/Getty Images)

SWAPSIES?

Toro Rosso may be Red Bull’s F1 B-team, but it has not operated on the same plane for all of its decade-long stint in F1. In fact, it has raced with the same power unit for just three seasons, otherwise enjoying a different supply.

So when speculation first emerged about a possible tie-up between Toro Rosso and Honda over the summer, it was not all that surprising.

A deal would certainly be attractive to Toro Rosso and, reaching further down the line, Red Bull. Let the B-team race with Honda power units until they get up to speed, then, as an alternative to the current Renault supply, increase the deal to include the senior team too.

“That scenario could be quite interesting as it would provide an option,” Red Bull F1 chief Christian Horner told Sky Sports at Monza.

“At the moment we don’t have any options. In this business you always want to have a few options available to you…”

Toro Rosso taking on Honda engines would ensure that Renault does not go up to four supplies, essentially swapping power units with McLaren. Both manufacturers would retain their existing power commitments, simply changing the postage address.

But just as McLaren has misgivings over Honda’s potential, it is reasonable for Toro Rosso to have them too. Any engine deal would realistically be locked in until the next change in engine regulations in 2021, and while Toro Rosso may be Red Bull’s B-team, it doesn’t want to be scrapping at the back. It would be a gamble.

And just as McLaren needs to make a decision sooner rather than later to aid its 2018 car development, so too does Toro Rosso. A deadline of Sunday night at Monza was supposedly set by Toro Rosso, but five days later, though, we’re still without an announcement.

Surely something before Singapore next weekend will be forthcoming.

SPIELBERG, AUSTRIA – JULY 07: Fernando Alonso of Spain and McLaren Honda prepares to drive during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Austria at Red Bull Ring on July 7, 2017 in Spielberg, Austria. (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)

WHAT ABOUT FERNANDO?

Once McLaren’s engine decision is firmed up, attention will then turn to star driver Fernando Alonso to see what his next move will be.

Having long delayed any real thoughts about his future until the start of September, the two-time F1 world champion is now next to move in the driver market for 2018 – although there isn’t very far to go.

Alonso is out of options. If he wants to race in F1 next year, he needs to stay with McLaren, with or without Honda.

The only top-line seat still up for grabs is at Mercedes, but a renewal for Valtteri Bottas is, in the words of team boss Toto Wolff, a “no brainer.” While a third stint at Renault could be of interest, the team doesn’t yet have the means to allow him to fight for an elusive third world title, and a switch to Williams would be totally from left-field.

Alonso is happy with McLaren. He’s unhappy with Honda. Take Honda out of the situation and put in Renault, a manufacturer that, for all of the criticism laid against it, has powered three grand prix victories in the past 18 months, and he may be able to once again dice it at the front of the pack.

If Red Bull can fight at the front, then McLaren, supposedly with one of the strongest chassis out there, should also be able to – the downside being that both the team and Alonso would have absolutely nowhere to hide next year.

The other driver that appears to be caught up in all of this is, curiously, Carlos Sainz Jr. Multiple reports in recent days claim that he could be used as a bargaining chip in any deal for Renault, who have identified the Toro Rosso racer as the perfect man to partner Nico Hulkenberg next year at its works team.

So the puzzle could, therefore, fit as so:

  • McLaren and Toro Rosso agree to swap engine deals for 2018.
  • McLaren keeps Alonso.
  • Renault gets Sainz to partner Nico Hulkenberg next year.
  • Toro Rosso gets a space for 2016 GP2 champion Pierre Gasly to move up to F1 next year.
  • Honda stays in F1, and gets a foot in the door for a potential works deal with Red Bull down the line.

Will there be a final twist in this tale? The next few days should reveal just what the future holds for all parties as this saga nears its endgame.

Spencer Pigot ready for full-season IndyCar effort with ECR

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After spending the last two years in a part-time role with Ed Carpenter Racing, contesting the road and street course races in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, Spencer Pigot now gets a long-awaited chance at a full-season effort in 2018.

Moving over to the No. 21 entry, which has featured ECR’s full-season driver since 2016, Pigot has seen slight differences in his off-season prep ahead of the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

“We were one of the teams that got to a handful of days testing the aero kit, so I obviously did all the running on the road courses, but I was able to do a few laps on the ovals when Ed was testing. So, that wouldn’t have happened (if I was part-time still),” he told NBC Sports.

However, outside of that increase in testing and a little learning some new tracks – he has not raced at ISM Raceway, Gateway Motorsports Park, Pocono Raceway, or Iowa Speedway in an IndyCar – the changes to Pigot’s off-season program have not been dramatic.

“There’s definitely some things I’ll need to learn, but as far as off-season prep: nothing too dramatic, nothing too different.”

Pigot’s first full-season campaign saw its first official outing of the 2018 season last weekend during the open test at ISM Raceway. While he and the ECR team struggled to find speed much of the weekend – they languished outside of the top ten in the results of the first three sessions – things took a turn for the better during the final session of the weekend on Saturday night, when Pigot ended up ninth on the speed charts.

He ended up 14th in the combined results for the weekend, noting that he and the team still want to find more outright speed.

“I thought throughout the test that our average long run pace was okay, but we were still missing the outright pace to be where we need to be come qualifying time,” he revealed. “I think that we definitely made a step forward Saturday night and definitely have a much better idea of a direction we can head and go with when we go back.”

In terms of long-run practice, Pigot noted that tire degradation became much more prevalent, which made running with others cars around you somewhat of a challenge. Though, he emphasized that tire degradation could be beneficial for racing.

“Talking to some of the other guys, it seems a little bit harder to run behind people as the tires go off because the tires are degrading pretty quick with the lack of downforce as well,” he explained. “So, it’s going to be tricky, it’s going to be sliding around a little bit more than what guys have experienced in the past. But, I think everyone’s under the same kind of idea that it’s going to be better racing, and especially at (ISM Raceway) it should be exciting.”

Pigot did get some practice at overtaking at ISM and got a feel for what he may be able to expect when IndyCar returns in April for the Phoenix Grand Prix, and while he acknowledged it was difficult to judge during testing, he did feel like he could run around other cars without much of an issue.

“It’s not like a race when everyone comes in the pits at the same time and you’re all on similar tires, so it’s kind of hard to know exactly. But, I thought we were pretty good,” he detailed. “I thought I was able to run pretty close to guys in front of me and was able to make a few passes when other guys made mistakes or might have gone a little high.”

The test also served as Pigot’s first IndyCar venture on a short oval – he last ran on a short oval in 2015 during his Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship season.

“The corners definitely come up quick. There’s not much time to really relax or think about too much,” Pigot quipped when describing his first time on a short oval.

He continued, “You’ve got to concentrate pretty hard on being precise because the line there is very narrow so you have to make sure that you’re where the grip is at all points throughout the corner. And then, when everyone’s out there and you run in traffic, it’s just like you’re constantly in a corner, so it’s a little more difficult to get big runs and drafts off people. But I think it’ll definitely play into the hands of guys that have their cars set up well and can be easier on the tires.”

And in becoming the team’s full-time driver, Pigot is seeing a slight increase in his leadership role within the team, especially as it relates to testing and development, with Pigot doing the lion’s share of testing during the winter on road courses.

But, he also emphasized the oval prowess of teammate, and team owner, Ed Carpenter as something he will lean on when he ventures out on other ovals for the first time this year.

“Especially as we’re trying to learn this new aero kit, I was the one that pretty much did all the testing on the road and street courses. It was kind of me and the engineers trying to develop the car and work towards the setup that’s going to work for us. So, there’s definitely a little more responsibility in that. But, then on the ovals, obviously Ed’s there and he’s a great teammate to have and to learn from and bounce ideas off of. But, yeah, it’s definitely a more involved role within the team,” Pigot explained.

Pigot and ECR will test two more times, at Barber Motorsports Park and Sebring International Raceway, in the month of February prior to the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 11.

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