McLaren-Honda ready to gamble at launch of new era

Fernando Alonso will return to Albert Park for next month’s season-opening Formula 1® Rolex Australian Grand Prix fired by ambition and hope as his McLaren-Honda team bid to launch a new era and put a bitter two-year spell of discontent behind them.

The two-time world champion Spaniard, now 35, is a keen student of his sport’s history and sensitive to the upheavals all around him in the last few years.

He knows that 2017 could unfold as a make-or-break season for all concerned after a European winter off-season marked by political chicanery, power shifts in both cars and ruling organisations, and the launch of a new set of technical regulations.

At McLaren, Honda have taken a new high-risk approach to their engine design, introduced a new style of name for their car, bade farewell to Jenson Button and Ron Dennis and crossed their fingers and closed their eyes.

The additional dramatic exit in early February of new team boss German Jost Capito, 58, after only five months as chief executive officer for McLaren Racing, served only to sharpen the identity of a new team emerging after last year’s board-room upheavals led to the ousting of long-serving former boss Dennis, 69, as the McLaren Group boss.

Alonso, a man who knows his own mind, made clear that following some encouraging progress last season – with an engine that has been stubbornly uncompetitive – he felt it is possible for the team to be among the pack chasing pace-setters Mercedes and Red Bull once the action begins in earnest.

"Victories? I think we have to be cautious…” said Alonso. “I have read that Zak (Brown, the team’s new boss) said this year that it will be difficult to win, well... who knows? I keep positive.

"I'm better than ever, I'm preparing as never before and I'm going to go for it. Who knows what will really happen, but I'm going to do it all.

“We have to be careful [because] in the races at the end of last year we were a second or a second and a half off Mercedes. It's a brutal gap and we must be cautious.”

For Alonso and McLaren, history will beckon when they roar into life at Albert Park on March 26.

It is nearly 25 years, and counting, since a Honda-powered McLaren car won a Formula One race, the last victory for that once-revered combination coming at the 1992 Australian Grand Prix in Adelaide.

There, in the final race of Briton Nigel Mansell’s title-winning season with Williams-Renault, Austrian Gerhard Berger took the flag ahead of German Michael Schumacher, a newcomer in only his second season with Benetton-Ford. Briton Martin Brundle was third in the second Benetton.

That hot afternoon saw a collision remove both Mansell, who had started on pole, and Brazilian Ayrton Senna, in the other McLaren, removed from the fray. A glance at the full result and the names involved confirms it was all in another age – and it was the last race in which McLaren used a Honda engine until the Japanese marque returned in 2015.

The return was not triumphant. Indeed, 2015 was a forlorn imitation of the past. In 2016, the changes came with progress and more hope. But it remains more than four years since the team enjoyed any kind of win – with Button, the 2009 champion, steering a Mercedes-powered car to triumph in the season-ender in Brazil in 2012.

So, what now? And what now for Melbourne?

Bogged down in the longest winless run in their history, McLaren has gone for a programme of sweeping change.

No more cars with the MP4 nomenclature used since 1981 when Dennis took his Project Four F2 team into a merger with the original McLaren outfit.

No more Dennis. No more Button. And no more of the old McLaren conventions?

The new car will be the MCL32, to be launched on February 24, on the same day that Ferrari, another team fighting the weight of history and expectation, unveil their new machine in Italy.

Already, Honda boss Yusuke Hasegawa has admitted that their new concept engine is something of a gamble.

"The concept is completely different," he said in early February, when the team released an audio file of the engine being fired up for the first time (on the same day that Renault did exactly the same).

"It's very high risk, we don't know a lot of things about that new concept. We know it will give us a performance advantage, but the biggest risk is whether we can realise that potential this year."

Ahead of the launches, a swell of excitement has surrounded rumours that McLaren’s new car will be launched in an orange livery, a ‘retro’ step to revive memories of the team’s origins in F1.

It the stories are true, the team will be conspicuous and there will be no place to hide once the lights go out and the racing starts.

Alonso is ready. And the young Belgian Stoffel Vandoorne will be trained for the challenge in his rookie season. For them both, and the team, it will be a new start. 

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