McLaren and Honda need no introduction. Perfect partners since the first lap in 1988, the association produced one of the greatest machines the sport has ever seen in the MP4/4. Brought to life by Steve Nichols and Gordon Murray, the car took all but one race victory in the hands of Alain Prost and eventual champion Ayrton Senna. The first McLaren Honda certainly set the bar high. However, with one of the most technically advanced powerunits ever constructed providing the MP4-30’s roar, the partnership has reconvened and so far missed the sparkle in performance to match that of the paintwork.
But of course, everything is relative…
The history books were always going to reappear as one of the sport’s most iconic partnerships returned for 2015. With this being a long-term project, quelling expectation had to be a priority early on. In many regards, a difficult winter ensured that even the most optimistic of McLaren fan had no aspirations of a champagne Sunday in Melbourne, meaning that historical parallels were duly put on hold.
This is by no means a negative appraisal of the work completed so far by Honda. The current 1.6 litre V6 Hybrid Turbo powertrains are the most advanced pieces of engineering in motorsport, high in complexity and tough to understand for even the most technical minds.
To compound matters, Honda have approached this season a year behind the opposition. As such, many of the difficulties they have faced so far have not been dissimilar to those faced by the likes of Ferrari and Renault in 2014. Across three pre-season tests where the RB10 failed on countless occasions, Red Bull managed 320 laps. In 2015, McLaren managed 380 laps over the course of the twelve test days. It is fair to conclude that the McLaren Honda package is in a stronger position than many of its first generation counterparts were last season.
Now that the first fly-away’s of the season have been completed, early assessment’s of various runners and riders begin to be made. McLaren Honda’s first innings may have failed to yield a single point thus far, but signs of potential have been evident. Fernando Alonso’s performances in both China and Bahrain were hugely impressive, with the latter seeing the Spaniard miss out on a point by a mere four seconds. Had Daniel Ricciardo’s Renault powertrain conceded defeat seconds earlier than it did, Alonso and McLaren would have a point on the board before the European leg of the campaign commences.
A Renault failure prompting McLaren’s first points of this new chapter would be rather poignant considering Renault’s troublesome start to 2015. A season when the French manufacturer aimed to cure reliability woes and begin to challenge the pre-eminence of the Mercedes powertrain, has started in the worst possible fashion. Reliability continues to halt Red Bull and Toro Rosso drivers in their tracks and with a fourth engine required for Ricciardo in Spain, penalties seem imminent even with the extension of the engine limit to five being a “formality” according to Christian Horner.
Few doubt that Renault will eventually break through this current technical wall, but with Honda matching the French outfit in the current reliability formbook, it is clear that the development gap grown over 2014 has been significantly reduced over the opening acts of 2015 by the Japanese manufacturer, even if a vast amount of dividing ground remains.
Jenson Button has hinted that when the powertrain hits the output heights of its rivals, the entire package will be launched into the upper echelon of the points, via a snowball effect. Fundamentally, more power means that the car moves faster, the tyres therefore become hotter and stickier and the grip improves, allowing the chassis to demonstrate its true potential. According to Button, this is a very exciting prospect indeed and many of those trackside have reported that the chassis could well live up to the billing.
McLaren are fortunate that they have employed two of the most experienced drivers on the grid, who will have the patience to cope with points being at a premium for this campaign, with an eye to future successes. In addition, having Alonso and Button in the car will allow the engineers to enjoy a constant barometer of the true performance of the package, as the former in particular is renowned for his ability to extract the maximum from the equipment available.
This may be McLaren’s worst start to a season in their illustrious history, but zero points from four races is a small, largely insignificant aspect of a story which appears very promising indeed. Rome wasn’t built in a day and champagne Sunday’s will return soon. Whether this will be in 2015 or in 2016 remains to be seen. The next handful of races will provide some clues.
Image Credit: "McLaren-Honda F1 Car 2015 Fernando Alonso 3" By Tim Dawkins via Flickr [CC-BY-NC-2.0]