McLaren afraid of staff exits in Honda struggle

Date published: December 14 2017

McLaren racing director Eric Boullier has said that he feared a staff exodus at the team as their struggles with Honda continued to worsen.

The Woking team have spent the post-season period reflecting on their time with the Japanese manufacturer as they now go into a new partnership with Renault.

Boullier knew another disastrous year was coming in 2017 after McLaren’s horror show at pre-season testing, and it was at that moment he feared the very worst for the infrustructure of the team.

“I went to the management, showed them the data and told them that we cannot accept another year like this,” Boullier told the official F1 website.

“We had a tough first year with Honda, we had a tough second year, and had expected progress good enough to get us back to where we belong – but Barcelona showed that we would go backwards and that was absolutely not an option.

“I obviously warned them about the consequences of another year of no results, where you keep everybody afloat.

“We have a new team, which has been reconstructed in the last three years: new people, very good new people – competitive people who used to win – and the danger was we’d lose them.”

Hamilton preparing for four-way fight in 2018

Date published: December 14 2017

Lewis Hamilton believes as many as four teams could be in contention for the titles next season with McLaren being the new dark horse.

The Brit reckons his former team could become a threat now that they have ditched the Honda engines in favour of getting their power units supplied by Renault.

He is also expecting improvement from Ferrari and Red Bull, so he is aware that Mercedes need to start the season on the very top of their game.

“McLaren will have Renault engines, then we may see four teams fighting for the championship,” Hamilton said via BBC Sport.

“Red Bull will be quicker (than this year) and Ferrari will be fast. We can’t stand still. We have to keep moving forwards.”

Hamilton added that his mentality is the same as it always has been and is only interested in finishing first.

He said: “I have the same mindset now for next year.

“When I’m training and preparing for a new season, I firmly believe that we can be contenders for the next championship.

“It may turn out to be not possible, but you have to have that mindset.

“If you go in with expectations of finishing fifth, it’s not going to work. You’ve got to gear yourself up to win.”

Hamilton is heading for the mountains in the off-season so he can recharge the batteries ahead of his latest title defence and fancies catching up on Game of Thrones in the process.

“I go to the same place in the mountains every year,” he said. “I have my dogs, I’m in the snow, and it’s very quiet and peaceful there.

“I spend most of the day sitting by the fireplace. We go skiing, watch some movies and catch up with some TV series.

“I’ve never even seen any of Game of Thrones. My friends and especially my brother are huge fans, and I think I’m going to get into it in the winter.”

Norris unlikely to get any FP1 runs

Date published: December 13 2017

McLaren reserve driver Lando Norris is unlikely to get any track action during grand prix weekends next season, but Eric Boullier insists he will still have a “busy life”.

The 18-year-old has taken over the reserve duties from Jenson Button for the 2018 season, but he will still race for Carlin Racing in F2.

While teams lower down the grid often give their back-up drivers an FP1 run every now and then, McLaren have never been fans of the policy, but Boullier says that doesn’t mean Norris won’t have work to do.

“I hope that he will one day drive for McLaren – that’s why we took him on board,” Boullier told Formula1.com. “But first is F2 – a good sporting challenge for him.”

He added: “He will spend a lot of time in the simulator and he will have the opportunity to test. He was also pushing to get some FP1 outings, but I am not a fan of this. But he will still have a busy life!”

Norris looking to learn to from Alonso

Date published: December 11 2017

Lando Norris is hoping to make the most of his opportunity when he races alongside Fernando Alonso at the Daytona 24 Hours in January.

The McLaren test and development driver will be getting some first-hand experience with Alonso after being named in the United Autosports line-up for next month’s race.

“I’ll get to know a lot more about the work ethic of a Formula 1 driver,” Norris told the McLaren F1 website.

“Even though he’ll be driving a different car, he’ll still want to do as well as he can.

“He’ll particularly want to beat his team-mates, and he’ll work as hard as he can to improve the car. Wherever I can, I’ll try and take onboard everything he does.”

Not only does Norris want to learn from the two-time World Champion, but he is also eager to see how he matches up to him in terms of pace.

“Obviously, I’d like to do well,” he said. “But I think it’s a more of good opportunity to learn from Fernando. I definitely don’t want to let that opportunity go to waste.

“But, at the same time, I’d like to prove what I can do against him, especially in qualifying.

“Daytona is a team game, so I realise that we’ll be sharing the seat and working together. But I’d like to think there’ll be a bit of a competition about who can do a better job in practice and qualifying.

“Whoever does the best has done the best, but it’s still a great opportunity to learn not from him.”

Norris is also making the step up from F3 to F2 in 2018 and is looking forward to getting stuck into what he describes as a “tough challenge”.

He added: “The aim is to win [the title] but I think that’s going to be quite tough.”

“I think top three would be more realistic. But I said that this year [in F3] and ended up winning!

“The other day, I said if I wanted to prove I were as good as Charles Leclerc or better, then I needed to win.

“But F2 is a much tougher category than F3, with a lot more variables.

“It’ll be tougher to win as many races as in the past, but Leclerc has proved he can do it.

“It’s hard to say until I get to the first race. But I’m confident in what the [Carlin] team can do.”

Prost: ‘Vandoorne even better than Alonso’

Date published: December 7 2017

The legendary Alain Prost has been very impressed with Stoffel Vandoorne’s development as McLaren and thinks he is operating at a higher level than Fernando Alonso.

Vandoorne had a tough start to life in Formula 1 but enjoyed a strong second half of the 2017 campaign which was highlighted by two back-to-back and career best finishes of P7.

Prost, who acts as Renault’s official advisor, thinks Vandoorne has built a strong foundation for himself and can go on to enjoy an even better in 2018 as McLaren join forces with the Enstone team.

“Everyone watched Vandoorne because, prior to coming into F1, he was recognised as one of the most exceptional youngsters for the future,” Prost told RTBF.

“He started at McLaren with reliability problems and never the same equipment as Alonso.

“But I think Vandoorne is now playing on the same level or even better than Alonso. He’s doing his development in a perfect way.

“Next year with a good engine, we’ll see if he’s efficient and reliable. Being on a team with Alonso is not easy, so Vandoorne has to stay calm, take his time, and I think there is no problem for him to be on top in years to come.”

Driver reviews: Haas, McLaren, Sauber

In the first of three parts, we assess each driver’s performance this season, starting with those at Haas, McLaren-Honda and Sauber.

Haas

Romain Grosjean

Qualifying battle v team-mate: 12-8
Average gap in qualifying: -0.196s
Race battle v team-mate: 10-9
Best finish: 6th (Austria)
Percentage of team’s Championship points: 60% (28 points)

Grosjean has been the slightly more consistent points-scorer at Haas – it took just six races for the team to surpass last season’s total points haul – and provided the American outfit’s highest finish in Formula 1 with a very impressive P6 in Austria.

But that performance is a very distant memory as Grosjean has instead become known as a frequent crasher and an even more frequent moaner, especially when Haas’ development came to a grinding halt and to the point where they were getting out-qualified by Sauber in Mexico.

He has, at least, just about got the edge on his team-mate and seems able to extract that little bit more out of the very temperamental Haas car despite his many offs.

You get the impression that Grosjean sees himself as the flag-bearer of Haas, the man trying to lead the charge of what is a still a very new team in Formula 1.

And while everyone loves an underdog story, not many want to see Grosjean as the main protagonist.

Kevin Magnussen

Qualifying battle v team-mate: 8-12
Average gap in qualifying: +0.196s

Race battle v team-mate: 9-10
Best finish: 7th (Baku)
Percentage of team’s Championship points: 40% (11 points)

Eventful is probably the best adjective to describe Kevin Magnussen’s season. A handful of points finishes and an even bigger handful of other drivers he has managed to p*ss off this campaign.

Magnussen’s highlight on the track this season remained the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, where he was running as high as P3 with 15 laps to go before he settled for a year-best P7.

Magnussen was one of the best starters in the 2017 season, gaining on average 1.74 places a race; but, it was a case of making up for lost time as he was one of only a very select few not to reach Q3 throughout the entire campaign – something that his team-mate did on five occasions.

There were a couple more points finishes to come in the second half of the year in Japan and Mexico, but they have been overshadowed somewhat by the spats and squabbles that he got into with others.

Just in the second half of the season alone, Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton and even Magnussen’s team-mate Romain Grosjean have all complained over team radio about his aggressive antics.

But even all of those incidents combined do not come close to eclipsing one of the highlights of the whole season when Magnussen told Nico Hulkenberg “suck my balls” after the German confronted K-Mag back in Hungary.

McLaren-Honda

Fernando Alonso

Qualifying battle v team-mate: 16-3
Average gap in qualifying: -0.259s
Race battle v team-mate: 9-10
Best finish: 6th (Hungary)
Percentage of team’s Championship points: 57% (17 points)

You can look now, Fernando, it’s over. Barely a weekend went by without Alonso sticking the boot into an unreliable and slow Honda. He got sick of it, McLaren got sick of it, we all got sick of it.

His sixth-place finish and fastest lap at the Hungarian Grand Prix just before the summer break was as good as it ever got for Alonso, who saw the checkered flag just eight times in the 19 races he participated in this season. Grim reading for a driver that should still be fighting for World Championships.

The only major positives for him are that he no longer has to drive a car with Honda power and he also started on his own road to Le Mans after getting a first taste of Toyota’s LMP1 car in Bahrain.

If Fernando Alonso cannot entertain us on the track in Formula 1, he simply has the freedom to try and do that in another series – continuing with the Daytona 24 Hours in January.

That being said, given what Alonso has managed to extract out of the god forsaken MCL32 this season, it will be fascinating to see just how high up the leaderboards he can climb in 2018 with Renault power.

He finished the season relatively strong with three consecutive points-finishes, but put this down as another Formula 1 season to forget for Alonso.

Stoffel Vandoorne

Qualifying battle v team-mate: 3-16
Average gap in qualifying: +0.259s
Race battle v team-mate: 10-9
Best finish: 7th (Singapore, Malaysia)
Percentage of team’s Championship points: 43% (13 points)

Stoffel Vandoorne had a difficult transition into Formula 1 with a combination of the usual McLaren-Honda reliability woes and early criticism coming from McLaren boss Eric Bouiller about his driving style.

When the Belgian did get an opportunity to drive the MCL32, he simply had no answers to the rather thankless task of trying to out-perform a certain Fernando Alonso in the first half of the campaign.

However, the second half of the 2017 season has seen Vandoorne begin to emerge from Alonso’s daunting shadow. He has shown he is capable of beating Alonso over a qualifying lap [albeit not very often] and his back-to-back seventh-placed finishes in Singapore and Malaysia made a great impression when Alonso was running largely out of the picture.

It was also refreshing to see Vandoorne distance himself from the assumption that Alonso has been acting as his mentor in his first full Formula 1 season. Vandoorne is at McLaren on his own merit and is trying to make a name for himself without the need to ride on the coat-tails of a two-time World Champion.

If McLaren and their Renault engines click nicely into place next season then Vandoorne could well be sharing more of the spotlight alongside Alonso.

If not, then another highly-rated driver in Lando Norris is waiting in the wings…

Sauber

Pascal Wehrlein

Qualifying battle v team-mate: 11-7
Average gap in qualifying: -0.05s
Race battle v team-mate: 11-7
Best finish: 8th (Spain)
Percentage of team’s Championship points: 100% (5 points)

It seems like it did not matter what Pascal Wehrlein did at Sauber this season, especially once the contract with Honda was cancelled and Sauber strengthened their ties with Ferrari.

The German does not bring the big bucks into the team and he is, after all, on Mercedes books – so it comes as no surprise to see that he has been shown the door.

It is difficult to stand out in a Sauber at the best of times, never mind knowing that your fate at the team, and in the sport, has been sealed long ago. As a result, Wehrlein’s performances have taken an understandable dip after taking two points finishes in the first half of the campaign.

He out-qualified his team-mate in seven of the first nine races of the 2017 season but, since then, he has managed to get the better of Ericsson in qualifying on four out of the remaining nine races.

In a year where he also missed the first two races of the season due to a back injury sustained at the Race of Champions event in January, Wehrlein looks set to return to DTM with Mercedes.

However, he would face another season of uncertainty there, too, with the Silver Arrows pulling out of the series at the end of 2018.

Does he deserve to lose his seat in Formula 1? No. But there is simply no room for niceties at the pinnacle of motorsport.

Marcus Ericsson

Qualifying battle v team-mate: 7-11
Average gap in qualifying: +0.05s
Race battle v team-mate: 7-11
Best finish: 11th (Spain, Baku)
Percentage of team’s Championship points: 0% (0 points)

Money talks in Formula 1 and there is no stronger evidence of that than Marcus Ericsson at Sauber. The Swede has now completed a second consecutive season without scoring a single World Championship point. His last coming at Monza in 2015.

Perhaps the most damning moment for those few who think Ericsson is still worthy of a place on the grid came in Hungary, where he was out-qualified by Paul di Resta – a driver who had not stepped inside a Formula 1 car for the best part of three-and-a-half years.

And yet, Ericsson has been retained for another year at Sauber, all because of the fact that his financial backers are the same that fund the Swiss team.

Given how long it took for Sauber to decide their 2018 line-up, Ericsson did come very close to losing his seat to Ferrari’s other reserve driver in Antonio Giovinazzi but he has ultimately survived the chop.

Despite making zero contribution on the track, it’s the financial contribution that unfortunately counts.

Mark Scott

Vandoorne: Abu Dhabi crash similar to Alonso’s

Date published: November 30 2017

Stoffel Vandoorne says his crash during Wednesday’s test in Abu dhabi was a “bit strange” as it was similar to Fernando Alonso’s off on Tuesday.

Two days in succession McLaren were forced into repair jobs as first Alonso and then Vandoorne hit the barriers at the Yas Marina circuit.

Alonso crashed on Tuesday when he spun on entry into Turn 19 while a day later Vandoorne rear-ended the barriers at that same corner.

“Today was generally a very good day – although it was a bit strange that I crashed in the same corner that Fernando did yesterday,” he said.

The Belgian racer, though, was happy with his day’s work.

“Overall though, today has been very productive for me and the team, and it’s been really beneficial to be able to have a first feeling of the 2018 Pirelli compounds.

“We’ve done a lot of testing, completed some good mileage, and understood a lot about how the tyres behave. The past couple of days have now given us the tools to be able to analyse the data over the winter and have a good benchmark for next year.

“Now that we’ve reached the final day on track of the 2017 season, I’d like to say a big thanks to all my mechanics, engineers and the rest of the team – not only for working so hard on my car today – but for pushing hard throughout the whole year, despite the challenges.”