Tuesday, 8 March 2016

F1 2016 Season Preview: McLaren - Going back to the start

Nobody said it was easy. No one ever said it would be this hard. Really what that's not been said already can be said about the rekindled McLaren Honda partnership? The one that got us all so excited at its inception?

Photo: Octane Photography
Of course it's one of the most evocative car-engine partnerships in F1 history, but the fervour in advance of 2015 wasn't all down to nostalgia. Honda was starting two years behind the rest in this engine formula, but one could recall the sport's first turbo era when it was the second generation of suppliers that took over to dominate, of which Honda was quintessential. The McLaren team's reasoning was sound too that again in this engine formula being a works partner is what you need if you want to win championships, and McLaren should know given it's willingly ditched the class-leading Merc it was a customer of in order to do this. There also is logic in suggesting this is short term pain that likely was inevitable for the longer term gain. There was an excellent driver line up and superb technical recruits too. Down Woking way after a couple of difficult campaigns the sense of rebirth was tangible.

Given all of this McLaren Honda entered 2015 as the sport's wildcard. Even after its difficult birth in testing plenty of sober people said that podiums, perhaps even wins, before the year was out was possible. Well, no. Perhaps no one, least of all Honda or McLaren, expected the extent of the difficulties they got. The consensus view is that Honda simply grossly underestimated the challenge, indeed even before the car had turned a wheel on track there were murmurs of the Japanese marque not giving the project nearly as much resource, personnel or urgency as was necessary. Of even late in 2014 half of its high-tech test beds not running and the like. Of engineering staff working on it being rotated like it was an HR exercise. Over-promising in public and reportedly in private can hardly have helped either. Honda also refused to bring in outside help, instead conforming to its cultural pattern of working things out for itself. And no matter what McLaren did Honda would not it seems have greater urgency injected into them, a point that senior figures such as Eric Boullier aired in public too.

To cut a long story short, the engine was not only well short of power it also was often comically unreliable, particularly early on in the campaign. On longer straights it would run out of energy deployment too leaving it as much as 240bhp down on the rest (Jenson Button suggested at one point that there might be a safety issue from the discrepancies in straightline speed). McLaren perhaps didn't help, with its 'size zero' concept giving Honda minuscule space for its turbocharger and the like, as well as that it required the mounting the ERS components within the engine vee, which also created problems. The tight bodywork caused many cooling woes too. McLaren also threw in egregious operational errors all of its own from time to time.

Almost rubbing salt into the wounds the McLaren chassis was reckoned to be a good one, not a Mercedes but among those next up. In slow speed grip it perhaps was the best of all, certainly pace through La Source in Spa and in Mexico's stadium section suggested as much. Its new technical head Peter Prodromou, who was Adrian Newey's right hand man at Red Bull and before that at McLaren, in the post-Newey age has a good claim to be the sport's technical standard bearer. And he improved things back at Woking, changing the philosophy there from chasing theoretical 'peaky' downforce to, just as at Red Bull, chasing more predictable downforce that gives the drivers confidence to push.

Judging by testing there has been a step-up for 2016 - you might say there could hardly not be - both in pace and especially in its previously-wretched reliability. All-in the car did 710 laps which was near enough double its total from 2015 which itself had 12 test days rather than eight. The engine note was much cleaner than before (though not perfect) which suggests progress in the engine's efficiency and mapping. All have declared the energy deployment problems of last year as fixed. Other impending personnel changes give cause for optimism. But the Honda still lacks top-end speed and was ceding 20 km/h to the Merc in the Barcelona speed traps, and the different tyre compounds used at the time suggests the gap if anything was flattering to the Japanese unit; some put the deficit at 100bhp. In addition we've also yet to find out how many development tokens Honda has burned through to get even to this point. "The step forward in reliability at least is huge," said Fernando Alonso in Barcelona, his words perhaps loaded. And while Alonso spoke of having the best chassis for the start of the European season (his words again perhaps loaded) his team mate Button admitted that "there's still a lot of work to be done to find a set-up that really works for us" while the team conceded that a few aero parts didn't make it for testing and will only be debuted in Melbourne. And the broad outcome seems to be McLaren has joined the group at the back of the midfield pack but currently has done little more than that. Everything else as before is a matter of if, and when, Honda can get it right.

There are still plenty of reasons to think that Honda can get there eventually - it should not be forgotten that it was rather a joke too in the early days of what turned out to be its imperious stint in the 1980s and early 1990s - but as outlined it's a case of how long it'll take to get there and more pointedly whether the patience of all parties holds in the meantime. There's the two drivers of course for whom time isn't on their side, but what of Prodromou - how long will he persist in producing excellent cars that have no chance to fight at the front? Or of McLaren more widely? Or even of Honda itself?

There's an irony that in seeking the greater control of being in a works relationship McLaren in fact got very little of it, as its fate remains almost entirely in the hands of Honda. If the Japanese concern gets it together then results could be spectacular. If not...

Fernando Alonso - Car #14
Photo: Octane Photography
It will sound absurd, but things actually went rather well for Fernando Alonso back at McLaren last year. No really, stay with me.

I know, even over and above the package's sheer uncompetitiveness he was out-scored by his team mate and by his own admission spent the year in "economy mode". He hardly blew Jenson Button away in qualifying either - and quali is far from Jenson's strongest suit. Worse in Japan of all places he derided his Honda for us all to hear as a "GP2 engine". Yet it would be wrong to conclude that Alonso didn't do himself justice in 2015, it simply was a matter of making sure you were looking not just at the times of those high-level attention grabbers. His trademark stunning opening corners and laps were there just about every time and were wonderful, as were his trademark hustling, relentless races almost every time too. His qualifying efforts in Singapore and Japan were about as impressive. Not too much should be read into the points match up mentioned, given the McLaren was so unreliable and in any case only capable of scoring occasionally. Button reckoned indeed Alonso was an even tougher team mate than Lewis Hamilton had been.

Returning to a team with his presumed nemesis Ron Dennis already had most of us watching from behind the sofa; that about his first act of the season proper was to return from concussion sustained in a testing crash (one which still is shrouded in mystery) and flat contradict the team's public version of events meant many thought it was all kicking off early. And yet as things stand he's still in the squad's employ, and as Ben Anderson of Autosport for one said "in terms of working with the McLaren team again things couldn't have gone much better". Japan (and Canada) rants aside, Alonso remained on his best behaviour.

Rumours persisted that he might have sat this year out had he hopped into the MP4-31 and found it wasn't all that. It wasn't clear how much basis these had - whispers attributing the nefarious to him often have a life of their own - but whatever it wouldn't have made much sense. Really there's no harm in keeping your hand in even in a poor car, and rather a lot that can be lost potentially by not doing so.

And stay he is doing. Yet in more ways than one also his fate is tied to those of McLaren and Honda. As we know that when Alonso gets a sniff of good results he can find a plateau on which to operate. So if Honda gets it right, or nearly right, then it has a driver that can take the thing the rest of the way on his own.

Jenson Button - Car #22
Photo: Octane Photography
History repeated with Jenson Button last year. Not for the first time he entered a season with a world champion team mate who plenty assumed would destroy him. Not for the first time he emerged from the fight with his reputation intact, possibly enhanced, as there wasn't all that much to choose. Perhaps we underestimate Jenson. Perhaps that he is all easy, relaxed charm out of the car, perhaps that he is so silky-smooth in it too, leads us to underestimate the talent there. Perhaps to underestimate the fight also.

For all of the Honda power deficit Jenson raved about the McLaren's handling, reckoning it was better than it had been with Woking's outputs in years, and this plus the challenge across the garage in Fernando Alonso brought out the very best in him. Judging McLarens in qualifying last year was never easy given the frequency of problems, penalties and differences in car specification, but really there was little between him and Alonso here and you could make a case that Jenson edged it. While hardly anyone saw it, he reckoned his Spa qualifying lap was the equal of that which got him pole there in 2012, while he'd have bagged the team's only Q3 appearance of the year without yellow flags in Monaco. Alonso had technical troubles in that qualifying session, ending it early, but it looked like Jenson had the beating of him anyway. And even though Alonso came alive in races again almost never was Jenson left by him and much more habitually the pair would be circulating in close order, although split strategies sometimes disguised this. Spain, where he appeared overly spooked by understeer, was about the only exception.

Even the ever-sunny Jenson like Alonso let his frustration show on occasion, particularly towards the year's end, yet perhaps his effort stayed unwavered more than Alonso's did. Indeed he ended the season as he started it, fighting off far faster opponents. Having repelled Sergio Perez somehow for 42 laps in Melbourne he held off Valtteri Bottas successfully in Abu Dhabi for a P12 finish he seemed delighted with. Who knows, maybe even Ron Dennis - one not always convinced by him and indeed would have had Kevin Magnussen in the car instead had it been his call alone - was converted by the end of it all?

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