No doubts as to what got Formula 1 fans hotter under the collar than a sweaty day in the Sahara this weekend. The subject of grid penalties for replacing engines right?
The sum total of 135 places on the grid plus another 15 for three gearbox changes were racked up by 9 drivers, with Stoffel Vandoorne taking his penalty tally for the season to 153 grid places. In fact, the Belgian has been hit by a grid penalty in 6 of the 13 races and if you actually worked out the demotions in terms of distance, it would now total over 1.2km.
On the face of it the penalties are ludicrous and I can fully understand the fans’ reaction. Even FIA President, Jean Todt, has come round to the realisation that a change is necessary, as he told Martin Brundle on the grid on Sunday afternoon.
It does seem totally unfair that drivers are being penalised for the unreliability of their power units and makes the change to only 3 units for the season from 2018 seem even more unnecessary. I understand the reasons behind the change as it’s all about saving money and keeping costs down. But just think how many engines are being used up on the various dynos to perfect reliability and how many spare elements are being carted around the world just in case a spare or three is needed and that cost saving soon disappears.
It’s a mess at the moment and when only one driver starts in the same place as he actually qualified, and when it takes a mathematical genius to try and figure out how the grid is determined, you know that it’s all got a little bit out of hand. Although I would add that a lot of fans have called for mixed up grids to improve the racing and, if I was to play devil’s advocate on this, what we got at Monza was very much a mixed up grid and, as a result, a quite brilliant drive from Daniel Ricciardo to finish 4th.
But what the fans, and if I am wrong please let me know, really want is for a system to be devised whereby the team are penalised, not their favourite driver. After all, except when he crashes and damages the gearbox, for instance, it’s not the driver’s fault that the power unit hasn’t lasted as long as it should.
So the call for a deduction of Constructors’ Championship points makes sense to me, but make it severe enough so that the leading teams aren’t tempted to change a power unit regularly. After all, if they think that by changing the unit 25 points can be theirs for the win, it’s no good only deducting 2 points, say, for having the resources and budget available to flout the regulations. Let’s not forget that the reason we have these grid penalties in the first place, is to deter the leading teams from taking fresh units, above their allocations, as and when they want to. And it was the teams that voted to have the grid penalties added to the regulations.
Incidentally, I like the idea of lost track time in practice as a deterrent, as was suggested by one viewer over the weekend. But I can understand that it wouldn’t look good for the show if only 10 cars turned up for FP1 one weekend.
Meanwhile, in a room in Woking, a decision will be made this week and the Honda/McLaren partnership that was intended to rekindle former glories on the track will finally end. Well, that’s the plan, although as with every separation, it’s all a bit complicated in the background.
McLaren have had enough and, to be honest, they had enough a long time ago. Reading back over my Silverstone blog at the end of the pre-season tests, this paragraph rather stuck in my mind.
“In layman’s terms, either Honda need outside help here, or McLaren need to go elsewhere for their engine. Because it looks from the outside that if nothing changes, the current situation could bring both parties down.”
That was back in February and the situation hasn’t improved. In fact you can argue that in many ways it’s got steadily worse, 10 DNF’s and 2 DNS in 2017, and still 7 races to go. So McLaren want change.
The feeling is that their brand is being damaged and their reputation for success in Formula 1 is being slowly eroded away as, week after week, their cars break down or don’t start or get overtaken with relative ease. Still no title sponsor on the horizon and even though Executive Director, Zac Brown, insists that they do have new sponsors (big brands too) coming on board for next season, they aren’t going to command the sorts of sponsorship fees finishing 9th in the Championship that they once could when they were winning races.
As far as I understand it, there are performance clauses on both sides of the contract and McLaren feel Honda haven’t lived up to their side of the deal. But what Honda are doing is paying McLaren $100 million a year to be their engine supplier and that is a lot of money to recoup. So McLaren would like Honda to pay to get out of the contract, which isn’t exactly the most attractive of propositions for the engine supplier.
And there’s the subject of Toro Rosso and whether Honda could go there. The commercial rights holder doesn’t want to lose an engine manufacturer from the sport and are trying to help to find a solution for Honda to remain in F1. But if Honda are paying McLaren $100 million a season, then it wouldn’t be too farfetched to imagine that Toro Rosso would like a similar deal if they are to take what is currently the worst engine on the grid and run with that.
So Honda could be in a situation that sees them paying to get out and paying to stay in – an expensive position to be in. But I’m sure they’d like to remain and prove to the outside world that they can still build fast reliable engines.
A decision has to be made this week, otherwise chassis development for next season gets compromised and, to add to the complications, the regulations, now that we’ve passed the June 1st deadline, don’t actually force another engine manufacturer to supply McLaren if they split with Honda. Theoretically, they could be left without a supply, although that won’t happen. If Toro Rosso joins forces with Honda that leaves Renault free to supply McLaren.
McLaren have had enough. To cut ties is to take a gamble that Honda won’t ever get it right and that you can win championships as an engine customer, something that we’re not seeing evidence of at present. But if the situation is handled properly so that both sides feel they have got what they want, maybe a reconciliation could be on the cards in future years?
Don’t bet against that, although for now, it’s probably best that both go their separate ways. McLaren to ‘rebuild the brand’ as Zac puts it and Honda to fix their problems away from the intense spotlight they currently find themselves in.