The McLaren and Honda story has been doing the rounds for a little while now but is there any substance to the rumour that the car maker may return to F1?
F1 and car manufacturers tend to fall in and out of love with each other, this is a cost vs reward exercise with the manufacturer needing to justify their spend on F1 being worth the global exposure.
Honda's last foray in F1 cost them big, having ploughed huge sums into their own works team (having purchased it from BAR) and really being the major investor in Super Aguri they needed results to satisfy the board. The huge global economic downturn that followed was enough for the Honda board to close the doors at Brackley having already pulled the plug on Super Aguri.
The Honda board knew the team had been striving to create the best car in 09 from a new regulation set outlined by the FIA. The design team in Brackley had abandoned the ill fated RA108 earlier into it's shelf life then normal instead concentrating on the RA109/BGP001 knowing that both a change in aerodynamic rules and a move back to slick tyres could jump the Honda team into contention. This however was not enough to convince the board that they should remain in F1.
Honda supplied only their own team on the grid with V8's so didn't need to justify their actions outside of their own board rooms. As we all know the team as we know went on to win both Constructors and Drivers titles through the BrawnGP brand with the Double Decked Diffusers causing the controversy of the season an idea that filtered through from the Super Aguri outfit when the team assimilated some of their staff when Honda effectively closed their doors. This however does not mean that a Honda powered team would have resulted in the same results achieved with Mercedes power.
In terms of F1 engines their V8 was never really a potent force, as Honda suffered under the FIA's homoglation rules having a very peaky performance band. It was widely reported when the Mercedes powerplant was injected into the BGP001 that both drivers felt the Mercedes powerplant offered much greater driveability when compared to the Honda V8 of the year before.
McLaren's breakdown in relationship with Mercedes is intrinsically linked to the story of Honda's exit, as McLaren sought to establish their road car division the ties that had been formed with Mercedes no longer became viable. Mercedes have supported the McLaren outfit with engines since 1995 meaning the team have not needed to pay for their engines. Mercedes also owned around 40% of the McLaren racing division up until the Mercedes board decided to buy the remains of the Honda/BrawnGP outfit at the end of 2009.
At this point a deal was struck that McLaren would re-purchase the shares from Mercedes over a period of 3 years. At the end of this McLaren would then pay Mercedes 8 Million pounds per year for supply of their Engines/KERS units. (This commences from 2013) although it is widely rumoured due to the enlarged costs associated with the new 1.6 V6 Turbo engines this cost will rise significantly in 2014.
McLaren's contract with Mercedes for engine supply runs until 2015 and it is also worth pointing out that Mercedes AMG HPP (High Performance Powertrains) is but an arm of the Mercedes brand. This means that the teams are given parity and the Mercedes works team won't receive a different specification engine to McLaren or Force India. As I discussed in this article: http://somersf1.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/technical-assesment-of-lewis-hamilton.html it is however plausible that a team could use their own ERS system in 2014 to leverage an advantage over the other teams using the same engine.
If some media outlets are to be believed McLaren will not use the Mercedes powerplant as early as next year (2013). This in my opinion is not going to happen as the MP4-28 is already in development and has been for some time. It doesn't mean it isn't possible as I believe the Honda V8 is still able to race although the last time it was in use we had the 20,000rpm rev limits and not the 18,000rpm now imposed on the teams. The still born RA109 also had plans in place to run with KERS which BrawnGP abandoned due to packaging issues in comparison to the Mercedes setup. The RA109 was designed to carry the KERS batteries beneath the front nose something that hasn't been attempted by the other teams who locate their batteries beneath the driver for better CoG (Centre of Gravity).
The reverse of the hurdles faced by BrawnGP in 09 would be faced by McLaren if they were to make such a rash decision to run a Honda V8 in 2013 creating its own packaging issues in comparison to it's Mercedes counterpart along with less driveability.
IF McLaren were make an early move to Honda in 2013 it may hamper McLaren in the short term technically but would allow for Honda to ease themselves back into the sport and the hearts of the Japanese car makers board. It may also mean that as Honda undoubtedly have a few of their V8 units kicking around, McLaren could pick them up free as part of a marketing move for Honda.
In terms of longevity for Honda to re-enter the sport as an engine manufacturer at this stage could be pivotal with; Cosworth up for sale and still early in the throws of their own 2014 engine development and PURE looking like it might not get it's V6 Turbo engine into production with money issues.
This leaves a void for another supplier with Ferrari supplying 3 teams (Ferrari, Sauber & Toro Rosso), Mercedes 3 Teams (Mercedes, McLaren & Force India) and Renault 4 teams (Red Bull Racing, Lotus GP, Williams & Caterham) if Cosworth don't develop a new engine and a new supplier doesn't come along it puts pressure on the others to supply either Marussia and/or HRT.
At 4 teams Renault have already declared themselves at full capacity and won't look to supply any other teams, meanwhile Ferrari and Mercedes could simply pick up the remainder giving parity to all the suppliers in F1. By making a statement of intent to re-enter the sport with McLaren, Honda could not only pick up Marussia and/or HRT but lure one of the other teams away from their current supplier.
Honda as a company are still working their way through the economic downturn that was the catalyst for their original F1 exit but perhaps a return as as supplier could be a shrewd move that gets them the exposure without the cost of a team. This is a lesson that has been employed by Renault who still enjoy the media attention and success of F1 vicariously through Red Bull Racing. The new engine formula for 2014 will interest Honda as they look to move some of their performance road car ranges to turbo's meanwhile ERS shows a more eco conscious element to motorsport which Honda were keen on when last in F1. Aligning their motorsport brand with the road range has always appealed to Honda who currently use WTCC and Indy Car as promotional tools on 4 wheels whilst they apply theirselves to a wide spectrum of 2 wheel motorsport. I personally would welcome Honda in a return to F1 but it would be foolish to believe that aligned with McLaren they could dominate the sport the way they did in 88 with the MP4/4.
Even if Honda aren't in the frame for a return McLaren may still be eying other options in order to either cut costs or further galvanize their brand. It could also be argued that McLaren may look to manufacturer their own powerplants but I believe they know only too well that the costs involved are prohibitive and would create a huge drain on their own resources and limit the future success of the brand. The MP4-12C from the road car division features a 3.8l V8 Twin Turbo engine that was developed in partnership with Ricardo taking the original Nissan VRH35 engine as a footprint. This could be seen as a stepping stone to a future which sees a division of McLaren supplying both the race and road departments with engines but it would be a massive stretch whilst the road car business is still in it's infancy to suggest they could fund this.
The only way I see for McLaren to make the large leap into a full scale Chassis and Engine manufacturer in F1 quickly would be part of a deal to buy Cosworth. Cosworth recently placed itself for sale and have both Rolls Royce and GKN eying a deal to buy the company. With Cosworth now split into different divisions neither Rolls Royce or GKN may find themselves interested in the Automotive element but rather be looking at their Aerospace and Defence interests. In terms of the Automotive & Motorsport businesses they may look to sell off these assets.
Cosworth have already stated they have started work on their 2014 V6 Turbo Engines / ERS systems which could provide a platform for McLaren to work with and also give them an avenue to become their own supplier. The work done by Cosworth within the road car industry also ties off nicely with any long term plans McLaren may have in this field.
All in all there are many ways in which this story could develop and unfold and I for one look forward in interest to see whether McLaren stick with Mercedes, entice Honda back to F1 or forge their own path toward a larger future/brand.