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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.

Adam Enticknap paves the way for the ‘Other 19’

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Once the 2020 Monster Energy AMA Supercross season kicks off in Anaheim, Calif. on January 4, eyes inevitably will begin to focus on the front of the field.

One rider will win that race. Two will stand on either side of him on the podium. Nineteen others will ride quietly back to the garage and if they’re lucky, get a few minutes to tell the tale of their race to a few members of the media. On their way off the track, the other 19 will take a minute to wave to the fans in the stands.

Adam Enticknap will motion for them to follow him.

One of the most engaging riders in the sport, Enticknap not only recognizes his role as a dark horse on Supercross grid, he revels in it.

“Not everyone is going to win,” Enticknap said last week at the Supercross media sessions. “There’s only one winner on a weekend; that’s it. There can’t be more than one winner. And everyone else has got to go home and eat too.”

A recognized Hip Hop artist known for his video ‘My Bikes Too Lit’, Enticknap is bringing new fans to the track – and as a result, he is putting a spotlight on riders deeper in the field.

Last year Enticknap was coming off a broken femur that marred his SX season. He made only three Mains with a 20th in Indianapolis, 15th at Houston, and an 18th at Las Vegas. In October, he earned a career-best 14th in the Monster Energy Cup at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas. He got there by being consistent in the three heats, finishing 16-15-15.

But that’s not the point for Enticknap. Yes, he wants to win but it is just as important to be the ambassador for those riders who are known only to their fans.

“I’ve made a path for riders that are not going to win,” Enticknap said. “And that’s not saying that I don’t want to win, or that I’m not going to win, but I’ve made it so that the guy who’s finishing 20th and barely making the Mains can make a full career out of it. I’m probably the most famous, slowest guy on the track. It’s come from the way I’ve marketed myself and the way I’ve been with my fans and I’ve appreciated every second that I’ve been here.”

On a good weekend, Enticknap is one of the “other 19” in the Main Event.

“Without all of us, there really is no winner. Everybody’s got to show up and everybody’s got to compete during the weekend. In our sport, everyone is so hyper-focused on the guy who is winning all the time, but I hope that I’ve opened people’s eyes that sometimes it’s not just about the guy who wins the race as much as it is about the guy who is succeeding during the weekend.”

For Enticknap, success looks different than for last year’s champion Cooper Webb or Eli Tomac who won six of the 17 races in 2019. It’s about knowing that when it’s time to ride back to the hauler – whether that is at the end of the Main or after a Last Chance Qualifier – that nothing was left on the track.

“My best finish was a 14th at the Monster Energy Cup – ever in my career,” Enticknap emphasized. “Making my way from the bottom is huge. I made my way from not even making the top 40 to finishing 14th in A-Main Event. That’s huge.”

And that’s progress.

In his second season with H.E.P. Motorsports, Enticknap predicts he will make 10 Mains this year.

Even if he advances to only half of the Features, it will be his best season in eight years at this level. Enticknap qualified for seven Mains in 2017 with a best of 18th at Vegas. He was in five Mains in 2018 with a best of 16th at San Diego before signing with his current team – and getting injured without rightly being able to show what he could do with them.

“I want to break into the top 10 – that’s my goal for the year – but as of right now I’m succeeding in all the little goals that I’ve set and I want to keep succeeding,” Enticknap said.

It’s not enough to want to finish well, however; riders have to visualize a path to success. For Enticknap, that will come with because of how he approaches stadium races. Towering over the field, Enticknap is not a small man by anyone’s measure so it’s ironic that he makes a comparison between Supercross and ballet. The indoor season is about precision, technical mastery, and finesse. And that is where Enticknap believes he shines.

“Supercross is more of a ballet. It’s more perfection. It’s something that takes so much talent – and you can see it in real life. When you watch an outdoor race, you’re like ‘that guy’s a beast’; he’s manhandling it; he’s hammering the throttle. And when you see a Supercross race it’s just so rhythmic and flowing and light. So much finesse on everything. Just such a fluent, technical race.”

Enticknap credits his background in BMX racing as one of the reasons why he is so fluid on a tight track.

“Supercross fits my riding style a lot,” Enticknap said. “I don’t like to just hang it out and get all sideways and just swap, swap, swap. I like to be very precise in all my movement. I’m a perfectionist. It helps in Supercross because everything is just timed by the millisecond.”

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