McLaren left standing in F1’s game of power unit musical chairs

Sam Cooper
Zak Brown and Toto Wolff on the grid.

McLaren will be just one of four customer teams in 2026.

In 2023, the percentage of customer teams on the grid was 60%. In 2026, that number will lower to 40%.

The new regulations brought in for that season onwards have already impacted the sport. Audi have secured their place. Honda and Ford were convinced to return to the fold while General Motors will enter as a power unit provider at the very least.

The 2026 season promises a shake up to the established order and it is already looking like a case of those who have and those who have not.

Red Bull, Ferrari, Mercedes and Alpine have their own in-house engine supplier with Red Bull’s going fully independent on that date. Aston Martin have secured what stands to be an extremely beneficial works deal with Honda and Sauber will become the works team of Audi.

That leaves, for now at least, McLaren, Williams, AlphaTauri and Haas as potential customers for those engine suppliers to lure.

While AlphaTauri will stay with Red Bull and Haas most likely stick with Ferrari, that means just McLaren and Williams were the variables and it was the former that was of most interest.

McLaren have transformed this year and, at the start of the season, becoming a customer team would have seemed a logical step. Indeed, CEO Zak Brown was spotted entering into Red Bull HQ for PU discussions but, as the season has progressed, their objectives have become wins and podiums not just finishing the race.

Despite Brown’s sounding out of Red Bull, McLaren ultimately have stuck with Mercedes which raises its own question.

Shortly before the final race of the season in Abu Dhabi, McLaren announced they would stick with the Silver Arrows until the 2030 season at least – who Brown described as a “a brilliant and reliable partner” – but does becoming a customer team not come with its own risks?

It has been 13 years since a customer team last won a Constructors’ title with Red Bull’s success deemed worthy of seeing them promoted to full works partnership and of course, McLaren have won titles in the past with the likes of Mercedes, Ford and Porsche but the landscape of Formula 1 has changed since then.

This season, and despite Aston Martin threatening to do so, no customer team finished ahead of its work counterpart. The final four spots in the standings were occupied by customers and Aston and McLaren were very much outliers rather than the norm.

Of course, McLaren were never going to become their own supplier. Exact figures for Red Bull’s powertrain endeavour have not been released but team boss Christian Horner described it as the “biggest investment since buying Jaguar.” McLaren have also just spent not a small amount on refurbishing their wind tunnel.

But the option to become a works team was there. With a reversal of their decision to leave F1 and with Red Bull having opted to continue going their own way, Honda was the potential prized possession of all the customer teams but in reality it was a battle between McLaren and Aston for that deal.

In May, Aston announced they had won that fight. In 2026, Honda will change their English base from Milton Keynes to Silverstone.

It is a deal which Aston stands to make a huge gain from. Honda are the current providers of a World Championship winning engine. Honda have powered the fifth-most amount of races in F1 history and are the fifth most successful in terms of world titles.

Honda were not the only option for McLaren though with rumours Toyota may be interested in returning to the sport for the first time since 2009.

The signing of Toyota Le Mans winner Ryo Hirakawa ahead of September’s Japanese GP as the team’s reserve driver for 2024 was interpreted as a move designed to pique Toyota’s interest but after Mercedes were confirmed, Brown suggested they were always the first choice.

He told Sky F1: “We were always going to continue with Mercedes. Of course, you do your due diligence and see what everyone else is up to before you make a final decision.

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“But we’ve got a long history with Mercedes. We got back to our winning ways with Mercedes, they’ve done an outstanding job. We’ve got a really close collaboration that I think will be even closer now.

“So it was pretty much a no-brainer, they just had to work through the details, but I’m really happy to announce it and just have a real focus with the team that we know what we’re doing moving forward.”

Had it not been for their poor start to 2023 then McLaren would have had Mercedes as one of their rivals for P2 this season. Say in 2026 it is those two battling, would the upgrades to the PU not be more tailored to what the works team want rather than what their customers-turned-rivals need?

Forever forward is the McLaren motto but by not securing a works partnership, the team may well find themselves trapped under a glass ceiling.

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