The future of McLaren
Mercedes’ proposed buyout of Brawn GP is bad news for McLaren. This is not just a question of engine supplies – the German manufacturer has a 40% stake in the team, and all suggestions are that they will sell it as taking 75% of Brawn would be much better value for money. This uncertainty will not please McLaren’s sponsors. McLaren’s resurgance in the late 1990s had a lot to do with their partnership with Mercedes, who have pumped a serious amount of money into that team. You only have to look at the swift decline of Williams since BMW’s departure to see what can happen. McLaren are sponsored by the likes of Vodafone, Santander and FedEx. It isn’t known when these deals will run out – Vodafone were initially said to be sponsoring the team “into the next decade” back when the deal was confirmed in late 2005, whilst Santander were unwilling to provide exact details when they confirmed their extension. Lewis Hamilton’s contract isn’t never-ending either – the team would almost certainly lose him if they lost manufacturer backing.
What we do know is Mercedes’ engine supply contract expires at the end of 2011, so you would think it would be unlikely that either would be willing to go beyond that. Mercedes have said that they aren’t considering stopping supplying McLaren engines, but didn’t deny that they may be taking their money out, and you can be sure that McLaren won’t want to be a mere customer if they want to continue as a front-running team no matter how good the engine is.
So therefore you would think that they will now go looking for a new manufacturer to work with, and pretty quickly too in order to make plans in advance, especially if it’s going to be a new manufacturer. But what manufacturer out there now is going to be willing to commit to an F1 programme?
The name that immediately springs to mind is Honda, who pulled out last year but left the door open for yet another return in the near future. McLaren and Honda have worked together already – their partnership from 1988 to 1992 was very successful, with 4 drivers and constructors championships. When you get great partnerships like that, it establishes quite a strong brand – see also Tyrrell-Ford, Williams-Renault, and McLaren-Mercedes itself. You could argue that Renault gained more PR-wise from teaming with Williams and dominating F1 in the 1990s than with its own team, especially in light of certain recent events – remember the Renault Clio Williams? McLaren-Honda is therefore an already-established brand, so it would make sense for them to work together again. A great way for Honda to get back into the sport.
Then there’s VW . So many times it has been rumoured that a VW brand will be entering F1, but each time nothing has materialised. McLaren do have a semi-connection, with Porsche building the TAG engines that powered the team to the title in 1985 and 1986. Porsche isn’t quite a VW brand but there are connections between VW AG and Porsche AG, with frequent rumours of one taking the other over. Audi’s racing colours also fit the current McLaren portfolio as well. But I can’t see this happening – if VW are to come into F1, it’ll be with Red Bull, as the fizzy drinks company sponsors many VW brands in racing already. But what a PR coup it would be for McLaren to replace Mercedes with one of their big rivals.
Elsewhere, there aren’t many manufacturer who could perhaps fit McLaren’s bill. McLaren and BMW worked together on the McLaren F1 roadcar back in the 1990s, with the Bavarian marque running McLarens in the works team in the late 90s at Le Mans. So would they consider a swift comeback to work with a big team? I doubt it. But how about Hyundai-Kia? They’ve been rumoured to be considering joining F1 for a long time, although they’re currently not involved in motor racing right now. That could change soon, though, as Kia are rumoured to be entering the BTCC next year with Triple 8, the team that currently runs the works Vauxhall team. Perhaps the precursor of a move into F1?
But all of this pure speculation. The truth is I cannot see another manufacturer coming into F1 for a while yet. So what about working with a manufacturer already in F1 – say, Toyota? They’re in F1 already, their team isn’t doing well and their colours fit the “traditional” McLaren colours. Perhaps an arrangement like that is the way forward.
But, if I’m honest, the most likely scenario would be for them to just not have manufacturer backing and switch to being a customer, as Williams did. And that is not good for their future.