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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.

Valtteri Bottas wins chaotic season-opening F1 Austrian Grand Prix

Mark Thompson/Getty Images
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SPIELBERG, Austria — Valtteri Bottas won a chaotic season-opening F1 Austrian Grand Prix while six-time series champion Lewis Hamilton finished fourth after getting a late time penalty Sunday.

The Formula One race was interrupted three times by a safety car, and nine of 20 drivers abandoned, including both Red Bulls of Max Verstappen and Alexander Albon – who tried to overtake Hamilton on the outside with 10 laps left, touched wheels and flew off track.

Hamilton was given a 5-second time penalty for causing the collision, having earlier been hit with a three-place grid penalty after an incident in Saturday’s qualifying was reviewed by stewards.

SHOW OF SUPPORT: Drivers take knee before race

Bottas led all 71 laps in the eighth victory of his career. It was the second consecutive victory in the season opener for the Finn, though he won four months earlier in 2019 after this season’s start was delayed by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Lando Norris of McLaren F1 celebrates after his first podium finish (Mark Thompson/Getty Images).

Bottas started from pole position and Hamilton from fifth, but it looked like a straight fight between the two Mercedes drivers as has been the case so often in recent years.

But late drama in Spielberg ensured otherwise and Hamilton’s time penalty meant Charles Leclerc took second place for Ferrari, and Lando Norris sent McLaren’s garage into raptures – and threw all social distancing rules out of the window amid the euphoria – with third place.

It was the 20-year-old British driver’s first career podium, and his superb final lap was the fastest of a dramatic season opener.

Norris became the youngest British driver to secure a podium finish and the third-youngest ever in Formula One.

Valtteri Bottas leads Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton during the Formula One Grand Prix of Austria (Mark Thompson/Getty Images).