McLaren goes back to the future, but can it return to its heyday?

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So there we have it. McLaren-Honda is well and truly back in business with today’s launch of the MP4-30. Sure, it doesn’t feature the red and white chevrons that made the old cars in the late eighties and early nineties so recognizable, but there is no denying that the new car is very easy on the eyes.

The deal with Honda may have been announced back in 2013, but today is the true starting point for the ‘new’ McLaren. The team has undergone a quiet revolution over the past year or so, and this is the final piece of the jigsaw.

Ever since the sackings of Sergio Perez and Martin Whitmarsh after the disastrous 2013 campaign, the team has made quite clear that it will stop at nothing to get back to the top of F1 – even if it means bringing back a one-time enemy as a driver and cutting ties with your engine supplier of 19 years.

Ahead of today’s launch, McLaren released quite a funny video featuring Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button called “Back to the Racetrack” (a parody of Back to the Future) that saw them turn a McLaren supercar into a flux capacitor. It won’t be in the running for the Oscars, but it was still a nice and funny video that set the tone for the year.

Because in 2015, McLaren is going back to the future. Back to some of its old roots.

The rekindled partnership with Honda is enough to make those who can remember the late eighties a little misty-eyed. The Japanese manufacturer first worked with McLaren in 1988, playing its part in the most dominant performance by any one team in a Formula 1 season. Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost won 15 of the 16 races, claiming a clean sweep of pole positions in the MP4/4 which is widely regarded as one of the greatest cars of all time. It was devastatingly good.

It didn’t stop there though. The marriage between McLaren and Honda may only have lasted until the end of 1992, but it was enough time to secure eight world titles in total (four drivers’, four constructors’). All three of Senna’s championship came at the wheel of a McLaren-Honda, and if you ask fans to pick out a favorite era in the history of the sport, many will talk about the battles between the two white and red cars.

The emotional ties that McLaren and Honda shared undoubtedly played a big part in them getting back together for 2015, but it is wrong to think that this was the only reason behind it. Quite clearly, McLaren and Mercedes had run its course. Between 1995 and 2009, Mercedes did not have a works team, making McLaren the total priority. When Mercedes then bought Brawn GP and put its own Silver Arrows out there, McLaren was an afterthought. Few teams win world titles without being the ‘works’ team.

By reuniting with Honda, McLaren is the priority once again. After the last failed attempt, it’s highly unlikely that Honda would even consider bringing a works team back into F1 any time soon, meaning that McLaren is, for the foreseeable future, top dog in Japan.

It is still a very big risk though. Honda is turning up late to the party, with the rest of the engine suppliers already having a year of running under their belts. By winning the right to develop the engine in-season, Honda has clawed back some of the deficit, but a reliable F1 insider informed me in Austin that it was behind schedule with the engine and it was too heavy. However, it was producing the same output as the dominant Mercedes power unit. In the past three months, this could have changed, but the early signs of proof should come in Jerez next week.

It’s an old romance that has been rekindled, but not the only one. Fernando Alonso’s return is something that few would have predicted five years ago, and even this time last year, there were serious doubts. Surely, after all that had happened in 2007, and with Ron Dennis back in charge, he couldn’t return to McLaren?

He could and he did, though. After five happy but ultimately unsuccessful years with Ferrari, the Spaniard has been forced to find pastures new in search of his third world title. McLaren and Alonso need each other if they are to return to the front of the field once again; it will be interesting to see how the next two or three years develop.

Things will undoubtedly improve for McLaren. Without a win in two years, it hasn’t been able to hold a candle to the leading teams. Then again, you could argue that without Alonso, Ferrari would have been in the same boat. McLaren now has a driver who is widely regarded as being the best pound-for-pound in F1. If anyone can get through the inevitable teething problems and struggles of a new engine supplier, it is him.

Jenson Button is a driver that cannot be written off either. He may have come close to losing his seat over the winter, but he proved in the second half of last season that he still has what it takes to fight at the very top of F1. His is a firm fan favorite and well-embedded in the McLaren family. In a straight fight, he may not be as quick as Alonso, but he will still play a crucial role in the success of the McLaren-Honda partnership.

The puzzle pieces are all fitting together at Woking. There is now an impressive triumvirate made up of Ron Dennis, Eric Boullier and Jonathan Neale running the team, whilst its line-up is arguably one of the mot powerful that F1 has ever seen.

McLaren may be looking back in shaping its future, but all of the decisions taken have been with one endgame in mind: winning. The remit would have read: “Get the drivers and the engine supplier that will give us the best shot of winning the title again”.

And you know what? McLaren may have done exactly that. Success may not come immediately, but this is a team that is ready to fight back with a vengeance.

Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws
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More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”