Boullier

Mid-Season Review: McLaren

The reassembly of one of the sports most successful partnerships was meant to be the springboard that a struggling McLaren outfit needed to return to pre-eminence. While the first races on Honda’s return to the sport were always set to be filled with trials and tribulations, few could have predicted the extent of their troubles at the mid-way point of their first season in the V6 Hybrid era.

Just 17 points on the board, from ten races plagued by unreliability, the first half of the season has certainly been a character building experience.

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How Corporate Culture Could Hinder Honda

Honda are certainly not unfamiliar with the pressure-cooker that is the Formula 1 paddock. Their struggles to adapt to life in the post-2014 formula has seen both them, and their partners at McLaren, face a barrage of difficult questions. This barrage has become more potent of late, as the team continue to languish towards the tail-end of the grid. While Honda have the resources and expertise required to win races and championships, such a turn-around will not simply be the work of a moment and McLaren Racing Director Eric Boullier, has suggested that Honda should seek outside assistance. However, with such a proposition being a departure from typical practices at Honda, Boullier’s suggestions could be shelved.

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Charting the Progress of a Legend

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…

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McLaren Unveil MP4-30

The most hotly anticipated car launch of this winter took place today, as Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button’s 2015 office was unveiled. The MP4-30 is to be the first Honda powered McLaren since the iconic partnership ended at the close of the 1992 season and as such, this car in particular has captured the fans’ interest. Throughout the launch event, #MakeHistory has been a constant and it seems that regardless of whether it is a successful machine or not, the MP4-30 is not going to be forgotten in a hurry. Still, a handful of victories would certainly help to cement this status…

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Honda Development Debate Solution

Following the discovery of the homologation loophole which brought a sigh of relief to Renault and Ferrari, a debate has been rumbling on in regards to how the regulation, (or lack of it), will apply to Honda, who are introducing their first generation powerunit this season. Following an appeal to the FIA, it appears that Honda will in fact be granted permission to develop their unit throughout the 2015 campaign, but the scale of the on-going project will essentially be defined by their rivals.

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Button and Alonso Confirmed At McLaren

While many analysts were beginning to guesstimate that Christmas could come before the McLaren driver saga drew to a close, the team have finally given their verdict – and it is pleasing news for Jenson Button’s army of fans. The Brit has retained his seat at the team, at the expense of Kevin Mganussen, who has been ousted to a reserve driver role. In regards to the worst kept secret of the season, Fernando Alonso was confirmed as Button’s teammate today and means that McLaren will field the oldest driver line-up in the sport next season – yet with 500 races and 47 wins between the duo, it promises to be a successful combination.

McLaren, Button, Cross The Line
By emperornie (Mclaren, Button) [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Button In, Magnussen Less So…

Evidently, McLaren have opted to pursue experience over potential. At a time when a new powertrain is inbound, this appears to be a simple decision to make, at least at face value. The fact that in Jenson Button, the team bestowed a driver with 15 race wins, 50 podiums and a World Championship title to his name, would have surely made this an even easier choice. However, regardless of what Button fans would declare, the choice was far from a simple one.
Kevin Magnussen has enjoyed a steady 2014 – the Dane has not been as spectacular as his surprising podium in the opening round would have implied, but he had demonstrated the type of potential which encouraged both Ron Dennis and Eric Boullier to continue their support of him. Kevin has looked particularly impressive in wheel-to-wheel combat. At times, he has unfortunately overstepped the boundary between what is spectacular and what is acceptable, with his thrilling dice with Fernando Alonso at Spa springing to mind, for which he received a totally-justified twenty second time penalty. However, dogged determination is what has defined Magnussen’s campaign.
In terms of raw speed, he has also fared well against his teammate. His qualifying performance in Germany stood out as a spectacular result, as the Dane notched a superlative P4, compared with a lackluster P12 for Jenson. The race may have seen him at the heart of an unfortunate collision with Felipe Massa at Turn 1, but Saturday’s result could not be forgotten. Where Kevin has struggled in 2014, is in race trim and his deficiencies on a Sunday have been exaggerated by Button’s stunning consistency – the Brit is famous for being an excellent points-scorer and in the MP4-29, Button enjoyed one of his best campaign’s in this regard. His performances on a Sunday were rarely anything less than the maximum. 
Perhaps one of the biggest determining factors to create this disparity has been driving styles. It seems as though Button and Magnussen are a polarized as styles come. Jenson is the super-smooth operator, inputting subtle commands into the steering wheel and driving with a type of precision which ultimately hampers his one-lap ability. Meanwhile, Magnussen is visibly much more aggressive with his inputs, demanding much more from the car on turn-in and therefore, demanding much more from his tyres. As such, Kevin has been the better qualifier while Jenson has had the upper hand come race-day. 
However, the argument that points make prizes, is far too simplistic here. 2015 is a year of change at Woking, as Honda re-enter the sport with a first generation powertrain. Immediately, they face an uphill struggle as they will face opposition from second generation powerunits, and McLaren have to begin to learn the fine details and subtleties of it – something which the competition completed a full twelve months ago. As such, experience is a factor which cannot be underestimated and Jenson’s finely tuned senses will unquestionably prove pivotal in a year when driver feedback is of particular importance. If Jenson fails to spot something, you can be sure that his opposite number will, and vice versa of course. 

Burying The Hatchet

Fernando Alonso 2007 USA 2
By Matthew Blasi from Fredericksburg Va & Washington DC, USA (2007 US Grand Prix)
 [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
While it was Jenson Button making the headlines today, Fernando Alonso’s appointment to the team in which he faced serious turmoil in 2007 is just as intriguing. The intrigue has undoubtedly been quelled by the news being the worst kept secret in F1 for quite some time, but it is still a fascinating storyline to explore. 
Without retelling the countless details, Alonso’s time at McLaren ended in acrimonious fashion – as acrimonious as it gets. The Spaniard was at loggarheads with Ron Dennis, as the former questioned his status in the team and seemed to use every trick in the book to win a position as the undisputed number one. As the championship neared its conclusion, the pair were no longer on speaking terms and both Alonso and that rookie teammate of his, missed out on the title after a resurgent Kimi Raikkonen took advantage of the McLaren drivers and bosses stepping on each others toes.
As such, the chances of Alonso returning to McLaren were somewhere between slim and none – particularly as Ron Dennis returned to the helm. However, it seems that the pair are now ready to bury the hatchet and move forward in a harmonious coalition. For both McLaren, Honda and Alonso himself, it is a good job they have.
The double World Champion may be moving into the autumn of his career, yet another sublime campaign behind the wheel of a decidedly average Ferrari has demonstrated that age has certainly not eroded any of his talents. In the right machinery, both he and Button have shown enough potential in the past 12 months to justify that that they can deliver a championship title.  
However, delivering a championship is not on anyone’s mind as a goal for the immediate future at McLaren. This is a project and regardless of how effective the Honda powertrain is, the team as a whole need to overcome the fact that they are essentially twelve months behind the opposition. If they can win races in 2015, that will be an impressive achievement in itself, but to challenge the mighty Mercedes for the title would surely be a bridge too far.
Regardless, McLaren seem to have made a wise choice in terms of drivers. Experience over youth is an age old argument and is applicable to most sports, yet as circumstances suggest a rocky road ahead as McLaren and Honda reacquaint themselves, a safe pair of hands behind the wheel is an excellent place to start. They have elected for the safe option, but as a famous saying suggests, discretion is the better part of valour.         

Mid-Season Review: Kevin Magnussen

2014 has somewhat been a year for the youngsters. Daniel Ricciardo has been nothing short of a revelation, Valtteri Bottas has out-shinned Felipe Massa and Daniil Kvyat has already placed his name in the record books. While Kevin Magnussen’s progress has largely been restricted by another dire year for McLaren, the Dane’s campaign has had several highlights. He is certainly adding pressure to Jenson Button’s shoulders, yet needs to do more to crack his highly experienced teammate.

Season So Far…

Australian Grand Prix
2nd
Malaysian Grand Prix
9th
Bahrain Grand Prix
Retired
Chinese Grand Prix
13th
Spanish Grand Prix
12th
Monaco Grand Prix
10th
Canadian Grand Prix
9th
Austrian Grand Prix
7th
British Grand Prix
7th
German Grand Prix
9th
Hungarian Grand Prix
12th

Second To None

When observing Magnussen’s list of results, one event evidently stands out. The Australian Grand Prix brought a remarkable result for both McLaren drivers, and one which is likely to remain their best result of the season – and by quite some margin. Second place in his debut outing saw Magnussen catch the attention of audiences around the world. Ok, so fortunes favoured Kevin, as both Hamilton and Vettel retired during the opening four laps and Daniel Ricciardo’s jubilation on the podium was short lived, but you don’t win the raffle without buying a ticket and Kevin certainly capitalised on the misfortune of his rivals.
Since Australia, Kevin has only managed 19 points, with his best finish being seventh place on two occasions. Unquestionably, Jenson Button has ‘enjoyed’ 2014 far more than Magnussen from a points perspective, yet this is to be expected. Button’s vast experience allows him to deal with the misfortune of having another poor car to cope with – It is unfortunately a reality which the Brit has faced in several seasons during his career, yet for Kevin, it is a new venture. A situation which is difficult to adapt to when you have been winning races in Formula Renault 3.5 and locking out a championship title just a few months ago.

As For The Rating…

Kevin Magnussen’s 2014 campaign so far warrants 7/10
Magnussen’s time at McLaren seems to be following in a very similar vain to that of Sergio Perez last season. Aside from the Dane’s heroics in Australia, he has been living in midfield obscurity, with Qualifying performances in Britain and Germany providing his only major success since his 18 point debut haul. However, the support from Ron Dennis will surely prove pivotal in securing Kevin a second season at McLaren, where he will hopefully have the machinery to demonstrate his talents. However, you cannot help but feel that Kevin needs Honda to deliver if he himself is to deliver headline-manufacturing results.