Tag Archive | Honda

McLaren stalling over 2014 driver line-up

McLaren's Martin Whitmarsh shares a drink with Sergio Perez and Jenson Button (Image: McLaren)

McLaren’s Martin Whitmarsh shares a drink with Sergio Perez and Jenson Button (Image: McLaren)

Jenson Button and Sergio Perez currently hold two extremely sought-after seats on the Formula One grid. At least, they’re sought-after seats for the future. This season is another story, as McLaren have struggled so much that neither driver has stood on the podium yet in 2013. Both drivers have contracts with McLaren until the end of the season, with options to extend, but those options have yet to be taken up by McLaren, sparking rumours of a possible change in driver line-up at the Woking-based team.

At this point of the season, there is no reason for McLaren to delay confirmation that they are keeping Button and Perez in their cars for next season. Unless, that is, they are considering alternatives. Reasons for signing (or replacing) racing drivers fall into two broad categories: sporting and commercial.

From a sporting perspective, there really isn’t much of a decision to make. Button has only improved since winning the 2009 World Championship, and Perez is still in his first season at McLaren after being identified as a rising star in 2012 and snapped up to replace the departing Lewis Hamilton at the start of this year. Both drivers have made it clear that they want to stick around at McLaren. Any delays can only be coming from McLaren, and only for reasons other than on-track performance.

When it comes to commercial interests, it is not unusual for a commercial partner of a racing team to put pressure on the team management to sign a driver who is close to their interests. It is also not unusual for up-and-coming racing drivers to join forces with wealthy sponsors in order to jointly further their aims of securing a deal with the highest profile team possible. Examples include Pastor Maldonado, who joined Williams in 2011 and brought sponsorship from Venezuelan oil giant PDVSA.

There are at least two major changes taking place at McLaren in the next two seasons that have massive commercial implications. From 2014, the team will have a new title sponsor, as Vodafone have decided not to renew their McLaren deal at the end of this year. From 2015 onwards, McLaren will switch to Honda power, when the Japanese manufacturer returns to Formula One as an engine supplier for the first time since 2008.

McLaren’s new title sponsor, whoever it may be, could well be linked to a driver or a few drivers. Honda could also be interested in promoting drivers linked to their organisation. While McLaren have a strong history of choosing drivers with talent, that does not preclude choosing talented drivers with commercial benefits.

During a recent Vodafone teleconference, McLaren team manger Jonathan Neale told Autosport:

“What you really want is talent and high performance.

“We’ve shown in the past that we weren’t afraid to make the changes that we felt that we needed to in the team, whether it was inside the organisation or in the driver line-up, in order to get the job done.”

Neale’s comments suggest that McLaren are at least considering a change of driver line-up, although arguably nothing is yet decided. He went on to say:

“We don’t comment on rumour mill or drivers until such time as we’re ready to make an announcement. I hope that it won’t be too much further now before we’re able to clarify what’s going on.

“This is that time of year when everybody is talking to everybody, whether it’s technical staff moving around or drivers.”

If McLaren are being as coy with Button and Perez as they are with the media, then there could be some cause for concern for the drivers. However, it could also simply be that decisions are already made and the team could just be waiting for the opportune moment for a public announcement, such as a race weekend or other event that is important to the team’s 2014 sponsors. With Honda involved, the announcement could well be delayed until the Japanese Grand Prix on 13 October.

McLaren gives up on 2013

McLaren have switched their development focus to 2014 (Vodafone McLaren Mercedes)

McLaren have switched their development focus to 2014 (Vodafone McLaren Mercedes)

It’s official. The McLaren team has given up on trying to win the 2013 World Championship and shifted focus to 2014. And who can blame them? They haven’t had a podium this season, let alone a victory, and after seven races, neither driver is in with a prayer of fighting for the Drivers’ Championship. There is also no hope of a challenge for this year’s Constructors’ Championship.

Wise move, McLaren. Very smart, although their 2013 sponsors might not be too pleased by the news that this year’s results are unlikely to improve. It’s a wise move because it means McLaren will almost certainly be right at the front in 2014.

Consider two examples. The first is the monumental success of the Brawn team in 2009. In 2008, Honda realised they had a terrible car and that it was pointless to waste resources developing it. So they started work on the 2009 car very early in the 2008 season. At the end of the year, Honda’s board pulled the plug on their F1 team. Team principal Ross Brawn led a management buy-out, renamed the team to “Brawn GP”, and then led the squad to an historic Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championship victory in 2009. The team’s leading driver (and 2009 World Champion) was Jenson Button, who currently drives for McLaren.

The second example is this year’s Mercedes team. Last season it became clear that Mercedes did not have a car capable of fighting for the World Championship and so the team switched focus to 2013 mid-way through the season. The change in focus has clearly paid off, as Mercedes have now secured five pole positions from eight races in 2013, Nico Rosberg won the Monaco Grand Prix, Lewis Hamilton is currently fourth in the Drivers’ Championship and Mercedes are third in the Constructor’s Championship, within striking distance of second-placed Ferrari.

The success of Brawn in 2009 is perhaps the more relevant of the two examples above, as 2009 was a significant year in terms of technical regulations. There were sweeping changes to the design of the cars in 2009, partly to clean up the appearance of the cars and partly to promote overtaking. Brawn’s engineers were able to exploit the new regulations very successfully due to the amount of time they spent developing their 2009 car.

2014 sees the next major set of technical regulation changes. Turbocharged engines, a proper ban on use of exhaust gases to create downforce, and a raft of other regulation changes provide a great opportunity for a team with the resources of McLaren to gain an early advantage by sacrificing this season in favour of starting 2014 on a competitive note.

Watch out for McLaren in 2014. It is highly likely they will be devastatingly quick.

Vodafone to end McLaren sponsorship

For the past six seasons, the Vodafone name and logo have appeared on the side of McLaren’s Formula One cars and in the team’s name – Vodafone McLaren Mercedes. But from the end of 2013, that will no longer be the case; Vodafone is pulling the plug on its Formula One sponsorship.

The move comes as part of Vodafone’s plan to “transform its local and global sponsorship strategy”. In short, Vodafone has enjoyed a successful partnership with McLaren, but now it is time to move on. This was confirmed by a statement from Vodafone Group Chief Commercial Officer Morten Lundal:

“We have been very happy with our engagement with McLaren. Our relationship has been a key ingredient in bringing the Vodafone brand to where it is today. However, our brand is evolving, and we’ve concluded we will have less of a need for this kind of exposure in future. We now look forward to further success and brand engagement with McLaren in 2013.”

McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh said, “We’re immensely proud that, having been set a number of ambitious challenges by Vodafone back in 2007, together we’ve met or exceeded each and every one… Our focus is on continuing to drive results for all our partners throughout the 2013 season and we look forward to making a major title partnership announcement towards the end of the year.”

Significantly for McLaren, it also comes shortly after the signing of Mexican driver Sergio Perez, who has been supported through his career by billionaire Carlos Slim’s Mexican telecommunications company, Telmex. Perez’s former team, Sauber, continues to display Telmex sponsorship on their 2013 car, and Sauber has a Mexican driver in the form of Esteban Gutierrez for this season. But McLaren, as a higher profile and more competitive team, would provide better return on investment for Telmex, making a switch all the more possible.

McLaren seem to be in the middle of re-aligning their commercial and sporting partnerships. The exit of Vodafone is now confirmed, but what is not yet firmly established is the possibility of a change of engine supplier from Mercedes to Honda. Rumours have surfaced recently that Honda is considering a return to Formula One with the new turbo engine formula that comes into effect in 2014.

While McLaren and Mercedes have enjoyed an extremely successful partnership over the last two decades, Mercedes are now focusing on their own works team, and McLaren will not want to be second on their engine supplier’s priority list. If Honda does make a return to F1, McLaren could easily secure their full commitment. For Formula One fans, the return of the McLaren-Honda combination would be significant and quite emotional – all three of Ayrton Senna’s World Championships came in McLaren cars powered by Honda engines.

For the moment, however, McLaren have a much more immediate priority – the 2013 Formula One season. The first practice session for the season-opening Australian Grand Prix is now a matter of hours away. McLaren will want to start the season with a strong result on Sunday to get their championship campaign underway. It’s been five years since McLaren last won a World Championship, and the team will be anxious not to let it slip away again this season. For Vodafone, as this is their final year of involvement in F1, success for McLaren in 2013 would be the perfect result on which to bow out of the sport.

McLaren to change engines?

Rumours are circulating of a possible change of engines for McLaren in 2014, when Formula 1 will move from the current 2.4 litre V8s to 1.6 litre V6 turbos.

It was reported some time ago that Honda might be considering a return to Formula 1 as an engine supplier, and that McLaren were potential customers. The team denied the rumour.

More recently, a switch to PURE engines has been suggested in the media. Again, McLaren have moved to deny the rumour, and the team has stated that it is happy with Mercedes-Benz and intends to continue the current partnership. There would be good reason to do so, given the success of the McLaren-Mercedes pairing over the last two decades.

However, there has been no indication of the length of the contract with Mercedes-Benz, which suggests that change may be possible. Mercedes has its own works team and will want the new Mercedes engine to work well with the Mercedes car. It therefore makes sense for McLaren to find an engine partner who would be more likely to design the engine to suit the McLaren car.

At this point, this is all speculation, but until McLaren makes some sort of definite announcement, the rumours are likely to continue.

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