Just over a month ago marked the 25th anniversary of the first victory in the perfect marriage of McLaren and Honda.
The pair came together in 1988 when the Woking-based squad snatched the Japanese manufacturer from world champion rivals Williams. It was a risky switch for Honda, who had taken 23 victories over the course of four seasons with Williams and had just enjoyed two consecutive title-winning seasons. But it worked.
Their first season resulted in one of the most dominant cars ever, with McLaren winning 15 of the 16 races on their way to both drivers’ and constructors’ titles. They went on unbeaten in both championships until Honda withdrew in 1992.
They made a return as a constructor in 2006 but after throwing lots of money at the project they quit just four years later – after which the car they spent hundreds of millions developing ended up a title-winner running as Brawn with a Mercedes engine.
McLaren, who currently run with Mercedes engines, will be hoping the new Honda relationship will follow in a similar vein to that golden year of 1988 – but it’s not going to be easy.
There are obvious reasons why McLaren have sought to secure their future away from Mercedes.
For a time, they had become a very close unit, with Mercedes buying a stake in the team, but since the return of the Silver Arrows as a fully-fledged constructor Mercedes have been making a slow retreat and taking some of McLaren’s prized assets with them.
They pulled out as a major investor a few years ago and last year they snatched McLaren’s star driver, Lewis Hamilton, and their technical director, Paddy Lowe.
More importantly than that, McLaren are now in direct competition with Mercedes as a constructor, and in that battle McLaren, as a customer, would always be fighting with one hand tied behind their back.
The new engine regulations offer the works teams like Mercedes a massive opportunity to step ahead, through close integration of car and engine during the development phase.
Mercedes will have known for a long time precisely what their 2014 engine will look like and have been working out how it best fits in the car layout. In contrast, McLaren will know only the basic details – because Mercedes would never filter important information through to their partner before giving their works team an early benefit.
So McLaren simply had to find a new partner.
The problem was, to do that they (and F1’s organisers) needed to lure another manufacturer name back into the sport.
Hyundai and Porsche were courted by F1, but neither bit. Honda did. And McLaren positioned themselves as the team to be with.
It’s a bold move for Honda to come back, having only closed their own team five years ago and been criticised for spending so much on it. But it does make a lot of sense.
The return is testament to F1’s efforts to become more road car relevant. The move to small capacity turbocharged engines and hybrid technology for 2014 has made it much more aligned with the future plans of companies like Honda.
Last month, Honda announced a 74 per cent jump in annual profits, boosted by overseas sales. They want more of that, and they believe the ‘new’ F1, which win or lose can play out a positive progressive development message in many key markets, as a good way to get it.
Being involved in F1 can go two ways – but by being an engine partner rather than constructor Honda can ramp up or down their marketing benefit depending on whether they are winning or not.
The financial environment has also played into Honda’s hands, with the Japanese Yen falling 20 per cent and predicted to remain weak for the medium-term against the US dollar, which is F1’s operating currency of choice. That means more bang for buck.
So compared to last time, it will cost much less to play.
The question is: does it matter that they did not make it in time to join the party at the start of the new regulations next year and what does it mean for the future?
Joining a year after the initial rule change is clever. It will allow Honda to refine their engine rather than jump in cold, and it avoids the massive risk associated with a new formula. The other manufacturers would probably follow suit if they weren’t already committed.
But for McLaren, it means next year will be part hiatus part hectic.
The 2013 car is well on its way and as next season progresses they will still have to develop it if they want to stay competitive.
But just like this year, they will have a second project on the go, which, depending on the similarities between Honda and Mercedes on the approach to the new formula, could require a completely different car design. And that will sap resources.
McLaren will not want to let another season pass where they are not at the sharp end – but they may have to do so to reap bigger rewards when the new partnership begins in 2015.
But there is one other element to this deal that is worth considering.
McLaren do not have an exclusive agreement with Honda, but as technical partners the deal is thought to be similar to that between Red Bull and Renault, with free engines and a close relationship.
Honda is likely to partner up with other teams as a revenue generator, with Lotus and Sauber both reported to be interested. McLaren will be their primary ‘works’ focus, but others will be determined to fight to wrestle that off them.
So like the reunion of Willams and Renault, which spawned a victory in its first year, this is another partnership steeped in history. However, as Williams have proven, the future does not always live up to the past.
The Williams-Renault relationship has fallen flat because it is not Renault’s primary focus. McLaren need to prove to Honda that they are the team to focus on long-term - and if they can do that, it could be the deal that brings them right back to the front.