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


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.