McLaren's boardroom may be in turmoil, with the team announcing the ouster of Ron Dennis as chief executive, but their on-track results, while not near McLaren's historical levels, are starting to show promise.
Glancing down the Formula One drivers' standings, the most surprising thing isn't Nico Rosberg leading Lewis Hamilton in the title race, nor is it Daniel Ricciardo ahead of pre-season championship hopeful Sebastian Vettel. No, the most surprising result with one race remaining in the 2016 season is McLaren's Fernando Alonso leading Williams' Felipe Massa.
That's Alonso, driving a McLaren with a Honda engine that struggled to finish a race last year—13 retirements and two races where a car did not even make it to the starting grid—let alone finish one in the top 10, leading Massa, in a Williams with a Mercedes engine that has powered its factory team to three straight world championships.
Why is that so significant, you might be wondering?
Well, for one, it reminds us of just how damn good a driver Alonso is. He has made more headlines in the past two years for radio rants, lawn-chair sunbathing and fake podium celebrations than for his results on the track, but the two-time world champion is still one of the best drivers in the world.
The Spaniard has outscored Jenson Button, his team-mate and another former world champ, 53 to 21 this year.
More importantly, though, Alonso's lead over Massa (even if it is just two points) reminds us that McLaren made the right decision in ditching Mercedes engines and bringing Honda back into F1.
With the complexity of the new hybrid, V6 engines introduced in 2014, engine customers—as McLaren was with Mercedes—were always going to be at a disadvantage. History demonstrates that teams who manufacture their own engines usually dominate after a change in engine regulations.
With the ability to build their engine and chassis in unison, Mercedes have achieved a significant advantage (their engine is also simply better) over the customer teams waiting for Ferrari and Renault or Mercedes to provide their latest engine to be integrated into a chassis that is already moving along in the design process.
McLaren don't actually build their own engines, but they are Honda's sole customer, which confers most of the same benefits.
"No grand prix team is going to win a world championship in the future unless it is the dominant recipient of an engine manufacturer’s efforts," Dennis said back in 2014 as McLaren were preparing to make the jump from Mercedes to Honda, per Sky Sports' Pete Gill.
Despite the boardroom drama surrounding Dennis, who built McLaren into an F1 powerhouse, the McLaren-Williams dichotomy is proving him correct. While McLaren are slowly improving, Williams are headed in the opposite direction.
In 2014 and 2015, Williams finished third in the constructors' championship, scoring 13 podium finishes and occasionally challenging for race wins. McLaren were fifth in 2014, with Merc engines, before slipping to ninth last season, scoring just 27 points.
Now, Williams have slipped to fifth in the championship, while McLaren have improved significantly and are sitting just one spot behind Williams. The points gap is still large (136 to 75), but the trend line for McLaren looks much more promising.
In the last six races, a McLaren has finished ahead of a Williams three times—something that happened three times all of last year.
In qualifying this season, Alonso and Button have combined for 11 Q3 appearances, and their average qualifying positions are 12.68 and 13.1, respectively, according to F1Fanatic's statistics.
Last year, neither McLaren made it to Q3 and were more likely to be eliminated in Q1 than get to the second round. Alonso's average qualifying position was 15.67 and Button's was 15.95.
Formula 1 @F1
🏁 @McLarenF1 at 800 🏁 Races started: 799 Wins: 182 Pole positions: 155 Fastest laps: 153 Championships: 8 https://t.co/YAkDN5afns2016-11-13 14:27:23
Of course, the major overhaul of the technical regulations for 2017 have the potential to derail McLaren's progress, but it is also an opportunity for the team to take a big leap forward. Working hand-in-hand with Honda, McLaren will certainly be better-positioned than Williams and Force India—the two teams directly ahead of them in the constructors' standings.
Before the 2016 season began, Autosport's Ian Parkes wrote of McLaren:
The fact its relationship with Honda, as well as the Japanese manufacturer's power unit, is still so immature, means any kind of progress this season must be viewed as a success.
It is too much to expect a title tilt or race wins, but if there was some semblance of evolution with regard to the reliability and performance of the package then that is a step in the right direction.
That progress is certainly there, although it's unlikely anyone within the walls of the team's Woking, England, facility would label the season a success—see Dennis' current employment status for the shareholders' views of the team's direction.
But there is reason for hope. Perhaps a change at the top will give the team a renewed impetus, rather than chasing past glories. Even without Dennis, the management team is still full of capable people like Eric Boullier and Jost Capito.
Meanwhile, young hotshot Stoffel Vandoorne is set to replace the underwhelming Button alongside Alonso next year, which should give the team another boost.
Williams and Force India are certainly in the better-funded McLaren's sights for 2017. After that? Well, just look at the trophy cabinets at the McLaren Technology Centre for an idea of what is possible.
It has been a long journey, and McLaren are certainly not at the finish line, but there is finally some cause for hope in Woking.
Matthew Walthert is an F1 columnist for Bleacher Report UK. He has also written for VICE, FourFourTwo and the Globe and Mail.
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