Whispers of a McLaren return to Mercedes power have been around for some time, but the team’s step forward in partnership with Renault this season had quieted that talk a little. So when the story broke in Russia, it broke quickly.
After first reports on Friday night that the team was in talks with Mercedes, it was on Saturday morning that McLaren announced it will not extend its contract with Renault beyond the end of its current deal. That runs for another season, but eyes are already on 2021 in many aspects, and both McLaren and Renault wanted to plan for that milestone in terms of power-unit supply.
While the initial focus was on the rekindling of the McLaren-Mercedes partnership, the fallout is Renault now has no customer teams in 2021 as it stands. Managing director Cyril Abiteboul explained on Saturday evening that it is a situation he is comfortable with, because, from his point of view, the split came about when McLaren was not open to the sort of partnership he wanted moving forwards.
“We clearly saw it coming, so I don’t want to give an impression that it happened behind our back,” Abiteboul said. “Clearly not. Mercedes in particular has been very transparent about that, and we have had plenty of time and opportunity to think about it, to consider, and also to have discussions.
“Our discussions with McLaren started back at the French Grand Prix when we began a conversation about what could happen beyond the term of our existing contract. What has become clear in the process is that the expectations for the partnership were different between McLaren and ourselves.
“It’s not a critique; it’s just that we had a certain ambition to bring that relationship to a strategic level, which was maybe not really the expectation of McLaren at this point in their journey. Therefore, it came to a sort of joint (agreement) that (the contract) was not going to be renewed after the current term at the end of next year.”
How strategic was Abiteboul thinking? Extremely so. Not just in terms of sharing technology, but in working together to try and turn their current battle for fourth in the constructors’ championship into one for top honors beyond 2021.
“I think McLaren is simply looking for a very simple and straightforward customer relationship. I don’t know what they said, but clearly the way that they presented it to us is they wanted a supplier and Mercedes is a very good supplier and has a turn-key product that would be (provided) in accordance to Mercedes standards and specification. McLaren (will continue to) focus specifically on its chassis — and there is some logic to that.
“Our proposal was very much more about a partnership in which we would share parts, engine integration, chassis installation — and not just that. If you look at where we are standing today, if you just look at the facts, we are at a highly power-sensitive track again — I think the fourth in the whole season — and you have four Renault powered cars in the top 10, so that does say something.
“But if you look at where we are standing, we are very close with McLaren, with almost nothing between us; but there is a wall between us and the top teams — 1.8s or something like that between us and pole. For me, the objective of that relationship could have been to work on reducing that gap together, creating more synergies about equipment, installation and facilities.
“Also, looking at the way Formula 1 is going to evolve, with standard parts, open-source parts, prescriptive design parts — there are a number of opportunities to join forces and try together, even as we compete on track, to try together to reduce the gap to the top. That was our approach.
“That’s why I was talking about a strategic partnership, which doesn’t mean them becoming a junior team or B team of Renault; obviously that was not going to happen, so we didn’t even consider or try that. But our approach was not really of interest for McLaren.
“Again, it’s not a critique, it’s a fact. And therefore, on that basis, we didn’t elect to race to the bottom. We stick to our principles, our values and also to what we believe is the value of our technology and our engine, and accepted the associated risk — and in particular, the prospect of losing McLaren.”
As well as overseeing this year’s resurgence, McLaren team principal Andreas Seidl has had a keen eye on the future and how the team can fight at the front once again. McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown believes that is by having more independence based on the direction F1 is taking, which meant collaborating closely with Renault was not his preferred option.
“You know the world of Formula 1 is going to change in 2021, and I think that is where we are focused now with this decision,” Brown said. “I think some of those areas where you can collaborate today, you’re not going to be able to in the future.
“McLaren wants to stand on its own two feet as an independent team, as we always have been; so we’re going to continue to work in that direction. I think the (2021) regulations are going to support that kind of independence — maybe more so than today.”
Today’s announcements were about much more than a power-unit supply deal. They have political ramifications and highlight just how the two leading midfield teams have different visions of how they will close the gap to the frontrunners.
Now they know they don’t have a long-term future together, expect things to get even more intense in this season’s on-track battle for fourth in the constructors’ championship …