Ron Dennis’ words should be echoing in McLaren’s ears as Honda rumours hot up

Michelle Foster

McLaren are reportedly open to once again teaming up with Honda come 2026, two names combined than either having you smiling, or shuddering.

There was a time when recalling McLaren-Honda took one back to the heydays of the late 80s and early 90s when Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna were racing for title after title.

After losing the title double, having held it for four years on the trot, Honda said goodbye to McLaren and Formula 1.

The two reconnected in 2015, Honda back on the grid for a third stint, their second with McLaren. But there were no World titles or champagne celebrations, just cries of “GP2 engine, GP2!” as Fernando Alonso was overtaken by a Toro Rosso at the Japanese Grand Prix.

Three years later they parted ways, McLaren signing with Renault and then Mercedes and bagging nine podiums, one a race win, in the five years since they said goodbye to Honda.

Toro Rosso, now AlphaTauri, picked up Honda with the Faenza-based team securing three podiums, including only the team’s second race win ever. But it was when Red Bull joined the mix a year after their junior team signed on that it began to fall from heaven, or at least Japan.

33 times the Red Bull drivers have taken to the top step of the podium racing Honda power, now dubbed Red Bull Powertrains, with two Drivers’ Championship titles and a Constructors’ crown also in the mix. McLaren have to be asking themselves what could’ve been if they’d waited that little bit longer.

Never mind because they’ll try again in 2026 it’s being reported.

According to The Race, following Honda’s decision to sign up for the 2026 season with Formula 1 introduces new engine results, McLaren began to make enquiries.

Honda won’t be supplying Red Bull or AlphaTauri, their umming and ahhing over whether or not they wanted to stay in Formula 1 as an engine manufacturer, or even just on the fringes as they are today in their collaboration with Red Bull Powertrains, had the Milton Keynes squad looking elsewhere for a 2026 engine partner.

They announced last week that partner would be Ford, leaving Honda without a friend for the 2026 championship.

McLaren began holding discussions with Honda over the winter, their long-term contract with McLaren set to expire at the end of the 2025 season.

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The advantage of being a ‘works’ team over a ‘customer’

Back in 2014, and ahead of McLaren’s return to Honda, then team boss Ron Dennis declared customer teams cannot win championships.

“The one thing that jumps at you, if you look at all the qualifications this year, is the time difference between the Mercedes-Benz works team and other teams,” said the Briton.

“And by and large it is always in excess of one second, putting aside the pace that they can generate in a grand prix when they are on their back foot.

“My opinion, and it is an opinion held by many people within our organisation, is that you have no chance of winning the World Championship if you are not receiving the best engines from whoever is manufacturing your engines.”

Formula 1 went onto tweak the regulations ahead of the 2018 season, announcing that manufacturers must supply all teams, works team and customers, with “identical” power units that “must be capable of being operated in precisely the same way by all teams who use it.”

That’s all good and well but at the end of the day the teams each design their own car, cars that have different layouts in just about everything including the packaging of the bodywork and the cooling systems.

As a customer is given the engine as it is, they have to design their car around that rather than, per say, Mercedes designing the engine around the car and what they believe is the most aerodynamic bodywork.

That is probably what McLaren experienced most notably in 2019 when they swapped Honda for Renault and had to use their development tokens to redesign parts of the car to fit the new engine and optimise the cooling.

McLaren, should they again do business with Honda, won’t have that problem in 2026 if, and right now it’s a big if, they are the Japanese manufacturer’s sole customer.

But will it be championship success or GP2?

That’s the $1.4 billion dollar question.

According to Forbes that’s what a manufacturer needs to commit to spending on developing and supplying a championship-winning engine.

The 2026 engines should be cheaper with Formula 1 set to introduce an engine cost cap. Added to that the sport is banning expensive manufacturing materials and systems such as the MGU-H while there’ll also be a selection of standardised components.

So not the $1.4b estimated in 2019, but the updated 1.6-litre turbocharged V6 engine, that remains the heart of the power unit, will still cost a pretty penny.

Last time around, designing an all-new engine, Honda got it wrong and it took them several years to resolve their issues with a first win coming in year number five, a World title in year seven, and the double a year after that.

This time around for 2026 the power unit will, for the manufacturers on the grid, have the bones of today’s engine but with tweaks, a lot of tweaks.

Given how today Honda’s engine – call it Red Bull all you want, it’s Honda – is on a par with the Mercedes and Ferrari units, that’s a good start point for the Japanese manufacturer and one they can build on.

They have time too as this year’s engines are suited and booted in Milton Keynes with assistance from Honda, it’s not Honda’s baby any more.

But it’s time they need to use wisely as 2026 is just around the corner and those committed to F1 under the new regulations are already at their drawing boards. McLaren and Honda also need to lock down an agreement to allow both the opportunity to focus on what needs doing.

History says their partnership can go one of two ways: success or disaster. This time around midfield shenanigans should be the first target as while McLaren-Honda 3.0 is unlikely to yield first year success as it did on debut back in 1988, it also won’t result in the screams of GP2 from 2015.

McLaren of course need to do their part too, it takes more than an engine to win in Formula 1.