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.

Rolex 24 at Hour 8: Acuras, Cadillacs look strong in GTP; tough times for Tower in LMP2

Rolex 24 at Daytona
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The premier hybrid prototype era of the Rolex 24 at Daytona began with a relatively smooth start Saturday through the Hour 8 mark.

Though two of the new Grand Touring Prototype cars fell out of contention within the first six hours, seven cars representing four big-money manufacturers were setting the pace (albeit conservatively at times) after eight of 24 hours in the endurance race classic.

The Cadillacs of Alex Lynn (No. 02, Chip Ganassi Racing) and Jack Aitken (No. 31 of Action Express) held the top two spots with a third of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship completed.

RUNNING ORDER: Standings through eight hours l By class

Brendon Hartley was running third in the No. 10 Wayne Taylor Racing Acura, followed by Nick Tandy in the No. 6 Porsche Penske Motorsport 963, Renger van der Zande in the No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Cadillac and Tom Blomqvist in the No. 60 Meyer Shank Racing Acura.

The No. 24 BMW M Team RLL BMW M Hybrid V8 ’s No. 24  was the first GTP car a lap down, but in better shape than its sister. The No. 25 BMW pulled off track for major repairs near the end of the first hour and was classified 133 laps down in 59th in 61 cars.

Misfortune also befell the No. 7 Porsche Penske Motorsport, which was forced into the garage for a battery change with 18 hours and five minutes remaining. The 963 was 19 laps down in 22nd.

But all things considered, the debut of the GTPs had belied the hand-wringing and doomsayer predictions that had hung over Daytona the past two weeks. Cadillac Racing’s three V-LMDh cars had avoided mechanical problems (needing only typical body repairs for the front end of the No. 01 and rear end of the No. 31 for minor collisions in heavy traffic throughout the 61-car field).

Its stiffest competition seemed to be the Acura ARX-06s, which led more than 100 laps in the first eight hours.

Pole-sitter Tom Blomqvist built a sizeable lead in the No. 60 (which won last year’s Rolex 24) while leading the first 60 laps around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course.

“That was my longest time in the car since we got it,” said Blomqvist, who led the car to the IMSA premier championship last season. “We’re driving it into the unknown now. We’ve done everything we can. We know it’s a strong, fast car, but there are so many things to learn it almost feels like we’re winging it. It’s a constant learning curve, for both me as a driver but for the whole team. We’ve had a good start to the race, but there’s a lot of race to go and anything can happen.”

The No. 60 lost positions when Helio Castroneves spun just short of seven hours remaining but later soldiered back into the lead with Blomqvist.

“That was a wild ride,” Castroneves said. “I just got caught up in the moment and I’m not sure what happened. It locked the rear so unexpectedly. Certainly, the car is fast. There’s a lot of traffic. It was very, very difficult. The Acura has good pace so far, and we are learning a lot in a short time.”

Two days after predicting the race would be an “old-school endurance race” with conservative driving and setups, Simon Pagenaud said his forecast has been realized.

“Totally,” the Meyer Shank Racing said after completing his first turn behind the wheel of the No. 60 shortly before Castroneves’ incident. “It’s been rare that I’ve been saving equipment this much here. In any of my experience in sports car racing, I’ve rarely driven this cool, basically trying to protect everything. It’s what we’ve got to do. And we’ve got the advantage having pace with the Acura.

“So for us, this time of the race, we’ve just got to build the foundation of our race. There’s really no need to dive into the Bus Stop on somebody right now. Six hours to go is a whole different story. If we’re there, there’s no problem. We’ll do it. We have the capacity to do that, which is honestly such a luxury. But at this point to me, we’re just going to save the equipment, get there and see where we are because the car is extremely fast.”

Pagenaud was involved in one when he was warned by IMSA stewards for “incident responsibility” on a spin involving the No. 8 Tower Motorsports LMP2 that is being co-driven by Josef Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin (two of the 10 active IndyCar drivers in the 2023 Rolex 24).

Tower driver-owner John Farano was in the car at the time, but Pagenaud joked he thought it was Newgarden, his former IndyCar teammate at Team Penske.

“I thought the Tower car, that must be Newgarden,” Pagenaud cracked. “Was it him? Don’t tell me. I know it was him. Doesn’t matter. Let me just take it. I’m going to say it’s him. Please tell him I said that when you see him.

The 2019 Indy 500 winner and 2016 IndyCar champion chalked up the run-in with Farano as “a misunderstanding. He hesitated passing the car ahead of him and gave me the left side, so I dove in on the outside, and he basically released the brake and hit my rear. So you could say it’s on me. You could say it’s on him. Honestly, I was confused as to what happened because I just saw him spin in the mirror. I don’t think we had contact.”

It already was a long day for the No. 8 Tower, which had to pull off the track on the first lap. A water bottle fitting leaked onto the ORECA LMP2 07’s electronic control unit, which malfunctioned. The team lost 10 laps while being towed to the pits and repaired as the first yellow flag flew less than five minutes into the race for the incident.

By the time Newgarden handed off the car to McLaughlin, the No. 8 still was nine laps down with eight hours to go.

Last year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona LMP2 winner, which also featured two IndyCar stars in Colton Herta and Pato O’Ward, rallied from five laps down, but Newgarden lamented missing three opportunities to regain a lap under yellow.

“We’re trying to chip away at it; it’s just difficult,” the two-time IndyCar champion said. “I feel solid, and it’s very fun to be in the mix the first time. Very special to be out there in the action. Just wish we were on the lead lap. Our pace was solid. We were strongest on track, but that’s going to change in the later hours with the hot shoes in the car. It’s not going to be easy to pull laps back on this field. It’s a very stacked contingent. They’re all good teams, lot of good drivers. Put ourselves in a hole not a good situation to be in, keep fighting at it. Felt like our pace was good.

“It’s not looking good now. You get toward the end of race, you won’t gain laps back on pace. There are too many good teams and drivers. … We need 8 or 9 yellows to go our way. It just doesn’t look good. But never say never. What if all the GTPs just blow up? I don’t know what’s going to happen. They look really good right now. This is not what everyone predicted. Let’s see. You just never know in racing.”