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Can McLaren Deliver a 3rd F1 Drivers' Championship for Fernando Alonso?

Matthew Walthert@@MatthewWalthertFeatured ColumnistAugust 7, 2016

McLaren's Fernando Alonso at the 2016 Hungarian Grand Prix.
McLaren's Fernando Alonso at the 2016 Hungarian Grand Prix.ATTILA KISBENEDEK/Getty Images

October will mark 10 years since the Brazilian Grand Prix at which Fernando Alonso clinched the second of his back-to-back Formula One titles with Renault. It seems almost silly to write it, but one of the best drivers of his generation has gone a decade without a championship.

After two near-misses at Ferrari, Alonso has spent the last two years wandering in the wilderness at McLaren, another former champion struggling to regain lost glory.

"In terms of driving, how competitive I can be or my third world championship hopes, then you drive for Mercedes or McLaren-Honda," Alonso said recently, per ESPN F1's Laurence Edmondson.

That is an interesting statement considering the team finished ninth out of the 10 teams in the constructors' championship last year and sits seventh this time around, with just nine top-10 finishes in 12 races. McLaren's last podium came in the opening race of the 2014 season, and their last victory was in the final race of 2012, before Lewis Hamilton's departure for Mercedes.

Jenson Button took McLaren's last win, at the 2012 Brazilian Grand Prix.
Jenson Button took McLaren's last win, at the 2012 Brazilian Grand Prix.Clive Mason/Getty Images

So why is McLaren the right team to carry Alonso back to the pinnacle of the F1 world? And have they shown any improvements over the last year-and-a-half since switching from world-beating Mercedes engines to sputtering, underpowered Hondas that would indicate Alonso is correct?

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The answer to the first question has to do with F1's engine situation. Three teams build their own power units, while McLaren are Honda's sole customer. The other seven teams buy their engines from one of the three engine builders: Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault.

In effect, those seven teams are second-class citizens. While the engine suppliers build their cars and engines in tandem and can modify their engines to suit their specific needs, the customers take what the suppliers give them.

That is the main reason McLaren left Mercedes and signed an exclusive deal with Honda—so they, too, could reap the benefits of being a works team.

"You have no chance of winning a World Championship if you are not receiving the best engines from whoever is manufacturing your engines," McLaren CEO Ron Dennis said back in 2014, per F1 journalist Adam Cooper, explaining the decision to leave Mercedes.

Fernando Alonso and McLaren CEO Ron Dennis.
Fernando Alonso and McLaren CEO Ron Dennis.Clive Mason/Getty Images

So the McLaren-Honda partnership is one reason for Alonso's confidence. He left Ferrari obviously believing he no longer had a chance to win there, and the other engine supplier aside from Mercedes, Renault, have struggled since the introduction of the hybrid, V6 power units in 2014.

That is why Alonso said only Mercedes or McLaren could help him win another title.

But Honda entered the sport one year after the V6 engines were introduced, and they have been playing catch-up ever since. There have been signs of improvement, but is it enough so that McLaren can challenge for the championship in the next couple years?

On the surface, the results are encouraging, if not mind-blowing. In 2015, McLaren scored just 27 points. With nine races remaining this year, they already have 42.

Alonso's average qualifying position this year is 11.55, a significant improvement from last year's 15.56, while his team-mate, Jenson Button, has improved from 16.21 to 12.5, according to statistics compiled by F1 Fanatic. And in 2015, McLaren never appeared in Q3—this season, they have already made it to the final qualifying round seven times.

In terms of lap times, let's compare the qualifying gap from the top McLaren to the pole-sitter at this point last year to see how much progress the team has made.

Here are the gaps from recent races in Hungary, Great Britain, Austria and Canada (note: Germany and Azerbaijan are omitted as they did not take place in 2015 and the gap is from McLaren's best time in the final qualifying session they participated in to the pole time, whether or not they both came in Q3):

McLaren Qualifying Gaps to Pole Position
Grand Prix2015 Gap2016 Gap
Canada+1.883 seconds+1.526 seconds
Austria+2.281 seconds+1.978 seconds
Great Britain+2.711 seconds+3.056 seconds
Hungary+2.543 seconds+1.246 seconds
Wikipedia

Aside from the anomaly of the British Grand Prix, at which Alonso put in a much quicker lap in Q2, the improvement is obvious—but so is the remaining gap. Even if McLaren improved by the same amount at each of these races next year, they would still be a long way behind Mercedes and the other leaders, except in Hungary.

Racing director Eric Boullier is impressed with the team's improvement relative to last year, telling GPUpdate.net:

On Friday [at the British Grand Prix] we were comparing last year and this year, and we were something like four seconds faster, when Mercedes was 1.5 seconds faster, or 1.7 seconds. So this tells you how much we have progressed, which is massive, you know—relatively, with last year's FP1. I think everything is falling into place now. 

Of course, there is one wild card that will give McLaren an opportunity to make the quantum leap that is necessary if they hope to win a world championship anytime soon: changes to the 2017 technical regulations.

McLaren racing director Eric Boullier.
McLaren racing director Eric Boullier.PETER PARKS/Getty Images

As with any big change, some teams will handle the new regulations better than others. While we won't know anything for sure until the new cars hit the track in 2017, McLaren are well-positioned with one of the largest budgets in the sport.

"I am on top of everyone to make sure they are not relaxed and they don't take too many holidays because I don't take holidays," Alonso said recently, per Sky Sports' Pete Gill.

The Spaniard is obviously motivated to chase down his third title after a decade of wrong turns and missed opportunities, but is McLaren the team to take him there? The improvements from last year are certainly promising, but they are far from a guarantee.

    

Matthew Walthert is an F1 columnist for Bleacher Report UK. He has also written for VICEFourFourTwo and the Globe and Mail. Follow him on Twitter:

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