F1 Gold | McLaren's fall from grace and its slow return to the top
• McLaren last won a championship in 2008.
• Honda-partnership yielded no successes.
• Mercedes coming onboard as engine partner in 2021.
The McLaren Formula 1 team saw a rapid decline in performance over the last decade and a bit. It went from title contenders up until the end of 2008 to back-markers bringing up the rear. It's a sad tale, and a tenure one would not have thought a great team like McLaren would ever encounter.
The last time the team tasted championship glory was in 2008 when Lewis Hamilton won his first championship with the team. After that, it was a slow and steady fall from dominance.
Pundits list various reasons for the team's lack of performance. Among them, squabbles between bosses, the team swapping managers far too often, and driver line-ups that never live up to expectations.
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McLaren F1 car. Image: TeamTalk
From the late 1990s, Mercedes-Benz was the official engine partner for the McLaren team. Famously known as McLaren-Mercedes, the partnership raked in numerous victories and pole positions and was often the title challenger to Ferrari.
In 2009, McLaren-Mercedes finished the season in third place, with 2008 champion Hamilton fifth in the drivers' standings. The following year, the team finished second behind Red Bull, and again in 2011. These years were not too bad and were they at least competitive. But in 2012, things took an unexpected turn when Mercedes, who had their F1 team from 2010 onwards, announced that Hamilton would be joining their ranks in 2013.
The announcement rocked the McLaren team, but they kept their focus. Also in 2012, Mercedes announced that they'd be ending their engine partnership with McLaren come the end of the 2014 season. McLaren immediately began talks with potential partners and managed to get Honda onboard from 2015.
McLaren F1 car. Image: Charles Coates / AFP
From bad to worse
In 2014, the first season in the new turbo-hybrid era, Mercedes romped away to both champions with Hamilton leading the charge. And McLaren, still with Mercedes power? Well, they finished fifth in the title race behind Mercedes, Red Bull, Williams(!), and Ferrari. Yet, the team had hope for a return to the front with Honda.
Honda's linkage coincided with Fernando Alonso joining the team from Ferrari. But while Alonso came out with guns blazing, Honda provided the team with an unreliable car. Between 2015 and 2017, the duration of the partnership, they acquired a total of 133 points! 133 over three seasons!
McLaren lagged with Honda power and the fall from grace was painful to watch. Alonso famously compared the McLaren race car to the ones used in F1's feeder series, a comment that upset the team tremendously. At the end of 2017, Honda ended its partnership with McLaren and the following year, Alonso quit the sport.
Fernando Alonso driving McLaren F1 car. Image: AFP / Josep Lago
Mercedes brings glimmer of hope
For 2019, McLaren signed two new drivers: Carlos Sainz Jr. and Lando Norris. The duo hit it off immediately and, in its second season with new engine partner Renault, the team ended the season in fourth place, overall. And the cherry on the cake was a return to the podium at the 2019 Brazilian GP.
The podium was the team's first since Jenson Button took victory at the 2012 Brazilian GP.
In 2021, McLaren and Mercedes will take up a new partnership, with the German giant again coming onboard as engine partner. Given that Mercedes has been building the best engine in F1's newest era - and McLaren making considerable strides in aerodynamic performance (2019) - it is not impossible to predict a return to former glory for this once strong team.