McLaren’s already difficult offseason unaided by its handling of Alonso story

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This wasn’t the way it was supposed to begin, this new era of McLaren and Honda.

The mathematical equation of parts was supposed to read: Alonso return + Button remains + Honda revival = success.

It may still end that way, but it’s going to take longer than anticipated to get there.

Along the way the on-time announcements, clarity and precision got lost, and the team heads into the 2015 Formula 1 season in a nightmarish world of hurt that is almost entirely self-inflicted.

“Delay” was the word best used to describe the team’s wait to confirm its driver lineup, which wasn’t officially revealed to the world until mid-December.

“Unreliability” is the word best used to describe a, frankly, brutal testing period of 12 days across Jerez and Barcelona. Only on Friday of the second Barcelona test and third overall – day 10 of 12 in the period – did one of its drivers complete 100 laps.

Some of the culprits that halted running the other days: loss of cooling water pressure, oil level, fuel-related spark/ignition issue, MGU-K seal break, accident, hydraulic leak and oil leak.

Granted, the new Honda power unit is about at the point of development where the new Mercedes, Renault and Ferraris were last year in the development cycle as a new engine. But still, given its pedigree for reliability and the hope of wanting to get the kinks out earlier rather than later, it’s been no doubt a drain on the team to be spending so much of the already little available testing time in the garage rather than on circuit.

And lastly, “confusion” has been the word best used to describe the messaging and communications from the team in the interim since Alonso’s accident on the fourth day of the first Barcelona test.

This hasn’t helped in what’s already been a challenging offseason, and it’s frequently left more questions than answers.

Here are the respective wordings from McLaren’s official releases, in order, since Alonso’s accident with regards to his condition from the accident:

  • Sunday, February 22: “Unfortunately, we were unable to complete the day’s programme after Fernando suffered an accident at Turn Three just before lunchtime. Although conscious, and able to speak with the circuit’s medical team, he was flown to a nearby hospital, where he was given CT and MRI scans as precautionary measures. He was uninjured, but will remain in hospital overnight.”
  • Monday, February 23: Fernando Alonso is making a solid recovery in hospital, and is chatting to family, friends and hospital staff.From the scene of the incident he was driven to the circuit’s medical centre, where he was given first aid and, as per normal procedures, was sedated in preparation for an air-lift to hospital.In hospital a thorough and complete analysis of his condition was performed, involving CT scans and MRI scans, all of which were completely normal.In order to provide the privacy and tranquillity required to facilitate a peaceful recuperation, he is being kept in hospital for further observation, and to recover from the effects of the medication that successfully managed his routine sedation yesterday.We intend to give him every opportunity to make a rapid and complete recovery, and will evaluate in due course whether or not he will participate in the next Barcelona test.
  • Wednesday, February 25: Following his testing accident at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya last Sunday, we are pleased to confirm that Fernando Alonso has now left hospital. He has returned to his family’s home in Spain for further rest and recuperation.

The confusion really began to occur once Ron Dennis spoke on Thursday, February 26, to assembled reporters in Barcelona to attempt to clear the air. My MotorSportsTalk colleague Luke Smith was among them.

Dennis said during the press session that Alonso was knocked unconscious, but not concussed:

“If you then ask the question why he was in the hospital for three days, it’s because there was a period of unconsciousness. It was relatively short.

“He is devoid of all injuries,” Dennis said. “We can categorically say he has no injury. We can categorically say he didn’t suffer an electric shock. We can categorically say that, we believe, the car did not fail. Everything after that becomes subjective.”

“He’s not even concussed. The technical definition of a concussion is that you can see it in a scan. The possibility is that the change of direction happened so fast that actually it was like – it’s inappropriate to use the word – a whiplash of the brain. It didn’t actually touch anything. It didn’t bruise, it didn’t bleed.

“I’m not trying to conceal anything. I’m just telling you the facts: he is physically perfect. There is no concussion.”

That prompted even more questions, including from former F1 medical delegate Gary Hartstein, who immediately dismissed Dennis’ assertion that Alonso was not concussed:

Hartstein’s additional thoughts can be viewed both on his Twitter account (@former_F1doc) and blog which was short, sweet and to the point.

Finally today we have word from McLaren that Alonso, who spent three nights in hospital after the accident, was concussed, which is contrary to Dennis’ assertion he wasn’t.

“Fernando Alonso’s doctors have informed him that they find him asymptomatic of any medical issue; that they see no evidence whatsoever of any injury; and that they therefore describe him as entirely healthy from neurological and cardiac perspectives alike.

“However, Fernando’s doctors have recommended to him that, following the concussion he sustained in a testing accident at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya on February 22nd, for the time being he should seek to limit as far as is possible any environmental risk factors that could potentially result in his sustaining another concussion so soon after his previous one, so as to minimise the chances of second impact syndrome, as is normal medical procedure when treating athletes after concussions.”

Head injuries – how they are being treated and how athletes recover from them – are looked at in a different light now by sporting organizations compared to how they were even four or five years ago.

In recent years, Dale Earnhardt Jr. (NASCAR) ruled himself out of competing after a concussion; Dario Franchitti (IndyCar) was forced to retire after sustaining one.

James Hinchcliffe, who sustained a concussion at IndyCar’s Grand Prix of Indianapolis a year ago, also questioned how the story has evolved:

This is F1’s first major concussion story of note in the new era of concussion protocol, and like in NASCAR and IndyCar, it’s affecting one of the championship’s best drivers.

While in both Earnhardt and Franchitti’s cases, the communication was swift, precise and left no doubt about whether the driver was concussed, this has been a case study in how challenging things can be if the communication is mishandled.

It’s odd too, because McLaren is usually renowned for its precision and clarity. But this has been bungled from the outset, and it’s only added to the frustration because no one really seems to know what is going on.

All we do know is that Alonso is out of the Australian Grand Prix, and shouldn’t rush to get back before Malaysia, and risk another potential concussion.