Bob McMurray: F1 deal not as new as it appears
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I have been to Singapore countless times since the early 1970s but this was my first visit to the Formula 1 Grand Prix — and what an experience it was.
Just another track in the daylight and not that attractive either. A bit like behind the scenes at a rock concert.
But in the evening, when the short twilight begins, the stage comes to life.
Even in these days of muted engine noise and plainly silly looking cars, there is an excitement in seeing the whole thing under lights that bathe the track in virtual daylight while being surrounded by pitch-black night which is broken up by the spectacular display of flashing coloured lights from the city.
The cars reflect the track lighting, sparkling and glistening as they navigate the narrow street circuit, which has an average speed of around 170km/h.
In the paddock it was almost comforting to be among the swirl of rumours, deals and announcements, but to look on as an observer.
The biggest one was perhaps the least surprising, with the confirmation that from next season the McLaren Formula 1 team will be powered by Renault. The Honda deal will slide over to Toro Rosso.
There is a lot more to the deal and the supporting acts like driver movements, sponsor agreements, possible new engine partners coming into the sport and even the growing thought that Red Bull will gradually withdraw from the sport as their original contract to remain in Formula 1 winds down.
The McLaren/Renault deal is being hailed as a new beginning for the McLaren team.
I have never seen such a great team, certainly not a team I love so much, fall into such an abyss of morale-sapping despair as was evidenced before the new engine partner deal was announced.
However, it could have come along much earlier.
The McLaren press release says “Despite a combined Formula 1 presence that stretches back to 1977, this will mark the first time that the two brands have ever collaborated”.
While that is true, there is a little more to the story.
Towards the end of 1987 McLaren was looking for a new engine supplier to replace the highly successful but soon to be outdated, TAG Turbo / Porsche.
At the Austrian Grand Prix that year I was summoned by Ron Dennis to attend a meeting between him and Jean Sage, the Sporting Director of Renault F1.
It was my role to witness the signatures on a document that was in effect a contract for engine supply. I was sworn to secrecy over the deal.
A short time later, sitting talking to a few people, Jean Sage hove into view.
One of our number suddenly piped up, “Hey Bob, here’s your Renault mate come to deliver the new engines for you”!
I immediately froze, as did the smile on Jean’s face, but he stopped and chatted with an utterly deadpan expression and shortly after continued on his way.
By the time I found him, an hour or two later, I was worried that he thought I had been gossiping.
Thankfully Jean had realised that the remark had been a flippant and purely coincidental one, to my enormous relief.
That Renault engine deal for 1988 never did happen because another engine project that Ron Dennis was working on did eventuate.
The 1988 season was when McLaren took on the already successful Honda engine (first time around) and the team, with drivers like Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna driving the superb McLaren MP4 chassis, went on to become one of the most dominant combinations in Formula 1 history.
No wonder then that Ron Dennis, when he was still at the helm of the team, decided that Honda would once again be the ideal engine supplier and partner.
McLaren did their part but sadly Honda could not reprise the achievements of the past.
All of this goes to show that nothing is quite as new in Formula 1 as it is made out to be.
● I travelled to the 2017 Singapore Formula 1 Grand Prix with the Global Sports and Events company.