Today’s resignation of Éric Boullier as McLaren’s racing director was a surprise, but not a shock. After years of blaming Honda for all their woes, this year McLaren have been shown up — and they have only gone backwards as the season has progressed.
By this stage, it was probably clear that McLaren had to make some fundamental changes. Unsavoury stories about declining team staff morale appearing in tabloid newspapers signify a poisonous atmosphere within the team. As ‘gates’ go, Freddogate was at least less serious than the spygate controversy that engulfed the team in 2007. But it was still embarrassing.
But as I have pointed out before, McLaren’s problems began long before Éric Boullier joined the team. There is no doubt that McLaren have a lot more work to do before they can return the top.
McLaren have appeared to be dysfunctional in one form or another for as long as I have been watching Formula 1. Some have argued that the roots of McLaren’s problems are in the matrix management system brought in by Martin Whitmarsh. McLaren have operated with committee-like structures since at least the early 1990s.
(You can read Adrian Newey’s book How to Build a Car to learn about the frustration this caused him during his time at McLaren.)
But you can say what you like about Ron Dennis or Martin Whitmarsh. At least they had a specific way of approaching their problems. They achieved sporadic success at the helm of McLaren.
Today’s leadership appears to be more like headless chickens. They lurch from one bombastic statement to the next. But a concrete plan of action is nowhere to be seen.
What is most concerning is that rather than figuring out their problem and focusing on solving it, they seem to be more interested in keeping one particular employee — Fernando Alonso — happy. At all costs.
Among today’s announcements, Andrea Stella has become performance director. Stella moved to McLaren along with Alonso in 2015.
McLaren’s newly-announced sporting director is Gil de Ferran. He was Alonso’s coach at last year’s Indianapolis 500.
There is no reason yet to doubt that these are bad appointments. Indeed, Gil de Ferran has good experience in Formula 1 management. He was sporting director at BAR–Honda when the team took its first win.
But the fact that both of today’s McLaren appointees have close links to Alonso appears to suggest that the driver has too much influence in the running of the team.
Zak Brown has confirmed that Alonso was closely consulted in today’s management changes.
Another sign is the way McLaren are talking about entering the IndyCar series or building a Daytona prototype car. McLaren are struggling to lift themselves out of Q3 in Formula 1, yet here they are talking about entering other series as if they could afford to lose even more focus.
All this might not be much of a problem if there was any evidence that Alonso was astute at this sort of thing. But we are talking about someone who has probably been the world’s best driver for 15 years, but has somehow conspired not to win any championships since 2006. All this despite (or, more likely, because of) all his politicking and scheming behind the scenes.
It’s an open secret that Alonso is of no interest to any of the front-running teams, because they don’t want any of the drama that is associated with him.
When Alonso re-joined McLaren for the 2015 season, it was a marriage of convenience. Alonso needed to drive for another front-running team having been kicked to the kerb by Ferrari and rejected by Red Bull Racing. McLaren, for their part, needed a top-line driver as part of their powertrain deal with Honda.
As McLaren’s Honda relationship turned sour, they found solace in forming a stronger bond with their superstar driver.
But you have to wonder if McLaren really need Fernando Alonso as much as all that. The way they are bending over backwards to his every whim — with ever-diminishing results — makes it look more like Stockholm syndrome.