The writing had been on the wall for a long time, and yet it’s still a significant moment: Eric Boullier quitting McLaren, just a matter of days before the team’s home race at Silverstone.
2018 wasn’t supposed to be like this. In fact, that last four years weren’t supposed to be.
Brought in ahead of the 2014 season by Ron Dennis, Boullier was seen as the man to steady the ship after a poor 2013. Somewhat ironically, he headed to the McLaren Technology Centre as part of a senior management overhaul that saw the role of team principal disappear. Now, he’s gone in similar fashion.
Over the past four and a bit seasons, Boullier tried to halt a slide that had already started before his arrival. 2013 saw a podium-less year for the first time since 1980, but the second and third in Australia (after Daniel Ricciardo’s exclusion) in 2014 was an anomaly. There would be no top three repeat after Boullier’s first race at the helm.
Honda was supposed to be the answer to McLaren’s problems, with works backing seen as crucial to future success. Instead, it masked many of the team’s failings as poor Honda performance was the biggest weakness, but not the only one.
Renault was the next answer, as the works team and Red Bull would provide a stable baseline against which McLaren could benchmark itself. But the MCL33 did not live up to expectations, and the preseason target of podiums gave way to a car that has picked up points on just one occasion in the past four races.
It was clear Boullier’s time was up at the French Grand Prix a fortnight ago. Internal unrest led to an interview from a source within the team who criticized the management structure at McLaren, and Boullier was then sent to face the music during the Friday team bosses press conference at Paul Ricard.
Aside from endless questions on Freddogate — referring to a British candy bar being handed out as rewards to staff — the Frenchman started singing from a different hymn sheet to those above him.
“I think Christian [Horner] is showing that you can win races as a customer,” Boullier said. “I think winning a championship is another level, you need to have a works team status.”
That answer was straight out of the Ron Dennis school of thought, the man who brought Boullier to Woking. But it’s a different era at McLaren, and Dennis’ replacement, Zak Brown, runs things in contrasting fashion.
It was Brown who was more effusive in terms of setting high targets for this season, based on what Red Bull was able to achieve with a Renault power unit in 2017. And the McLaren Racing CEO was also the man who suggested Boullier had no excuses at the start of the season.
“The amount of pressure on everyone has been intense because we’ve been scrapping for every last tenth,” Brown told RACER ahead of 2018. “We like that there’s no place to hide; we don’t want to hide, we want to go motor racing. We’re McLaren, we want to get out there and mix it up.
“The last three years wasn’t designed to hide, it just happened. But people need to remember that our decline started in our last two years of the Mercedes relationship too. Okay, in our three years [with Honda] we kind of fell off a cliff, yes we had some podiums but we haven’t won a race since 2012.
“So we’re hungry. But it’s great when you talk to Eric and the team and you go ‘Do you need anything?’ and they say ‘Nope, we’re good.’ So everyone’s ready. Everyone’s ready.
“Eric is happy with everything that he has. I asked him the other day, ‘Anything else you need?’ ‘Nope, I got what I need.’ So everyone is excited and the anticipation is building. I wish Australia was tomorrow.”
It’s that enthusiasm and optimism that has made this season such a disappointment for McLaren. The team was convinced it was going to be fighting near the front and getting close to Red Bull, Mercedes and Ferrari. Instead, it is nearly two seconds a lap off the pace and in France failed to get either car out of Q1.
But Brown’s quotes are even more telling now. Boullier was the man on whom he put the responsibility for having everything in place this season, and therefore the man to take the fall when things didn’t work out.
The Californian also highlighted when the decline started, and you could argue it has yet to bottom out. The Honda years were woeful, but the power unit took much of the flak. This year, Red Bull has shown what is possible with the Renault engine, and Renault itself is comfortably ahead of McLaren in the constructors’ championship. The belief that McLaren has had a strong chassis hidden by a power deficit in recent years is really starting to wane.
Brown today (and Fernando Alonso most weekends) pointed to the team’s points tally compared to last year. But if that was a real sign of progress and improvement that was heading in the right direction, changes wouldn’t need to be made.
So many years of poor performance have taken their toll on finances, as has the split from Honda, and with Brown and Boullier the figureheads, one of them had to go. And one had been there much longer than the other.
But Boullier’s departure will not change things overnight. In fact, it won’t change things for some time. Teams are shifting more and more resources to next year’s cars, and development plans are already in place right up to the end of the season. There can be some influence from COO Simon Roberts as he oversees production, engineering and logistics, but it will be 2019 at the earliest that the real impact of today’s announcement will start to be seen.
Even then, McLaren faces a long road back. It has taken six years of decline to reach this point, and that isn’t recoverable in one winter. Just look at Renault and the rebuilding project it is currently undergoing, plus the steady nature of its climb up the field. That’s a team that has momentum and the feeling that it is heading in the right direction, but even that is taking a long, long time.
Brown is right to call for patience — it suits him if he fears for his own job, don’t forget — but only once McLaren has the right structure in place to take it forward. Boullier’s departure is just the headline, and won’t resolve the situation on its own. For the team to really make progress, many more acquisitions will need to be made and tough decisions taken over who remains involved.
Today, all that has really happened is an admittance that McLaren in its current guise is not good enough. The hard work of becoming good enough again still lies ahead.