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Searching for the Swiss Army Knife car

Fernando Alonso

McLaren F1 and Honda have reunited for the 2015 Formula 1 Season to become a major force in the sport again. So far, the project is a disaster.

All the ingredients are there – a team that has won 182 races to secure 12 drivers’ and 8 constructors’ championship titles, an engine supplier of the same level which has pocketed eleven Formula 1 championships, and two very experienced, but still top class drivers, 2005 & 2006 world champion Fernando Alonso and 2009 title winner Jenson Button. However, in 2015, reunited McLaren-Honda have scored a poor four points in eight races, and encountered ten DNFs. Only in China both cars saw the chequered flag, but were dramatically off the pace. At the Austrian Grand Prix, Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button both collected 25 place grid penalties, which translated into additional race time penalties, for exceeding their engine allocation and related issues. So what’s going so very wrong?

Climbing the mountain

Dogged by persistent reliability and power unit problems, the McLaren-Honda partnership has been suffering. But McLaren racing director Eric Boullier is not getting tired of confirming that the cooperation needs commitment and sacrifice. “It is easy to blame the partner, but we also have to be supportive. To be fair, they decided to join Formula 1 two years ago and it is not easy to be here and win. We always said we had a mountain to climb, but it looks like it is a very high mountain”. Originating from Alpine Austria, Alex Wurz hobnobs with mountains. But the former long-time McLaren third driver has asserted “they have a massive problem right now. Usually you are either too slow or your engine is not reliable. But with them, currently both are the case”. McLaren’s lack of reliability has obviously hindered progress towards establishing a steady and solid foundation, but Boullier insists an upturn is near: “We can’t deny retiring both cars so often was a bitter blow. Reliability has been a key issue during our development push. But we are getting there, although the current rules with penalties for engine failures don’t help”. The Frenchman added some careful criticism in the direction of Honda: “Obviously, we hope to be listened to more. We have discussions every day, and I don’t want to go into anything in public, but there is some way to improve faster and we should go that path”.

Obviously, we hope to be listened to more. We have discussions every day, and I don’t want to go into anything in public, but there is some way to improve faster and we should go that path.

Standard procedure

When Honda first entered Formula 1 as an engine supplier in 1983, it took them two races to finish on the podium – Keke Rosberg was 2nd in the 1984 season opener in Brazil on a Williams Honda – and ten races to celebrate their first victory – also Williams driver Rosberg at the 1984 Dallas Grand Prix. But it was not until the end of the 1985 season that the Honda engine was quick and reliable. In between, Williams-Honda had suffered 22 DNFs in 17 Grands Prix. Even considering that engines were far more susceptible to failure in those days, it goes to show that such projects take time to develop. Meanwhile, Honda’s head of motorsport Yasuhisa Arai is drawing a much brighter, but also highly unrealistic image: “I know we don’t have good reliability but it is almost fixed. Over the second half of the season I expect we will have more progress. I think we will catch up with most of the top teams as we are working intensely on increasing the horsepower, improving both drivability and the control system. We will be more competitive every time, race by race. Hungary, Spa, we WILL make improvements. Not slowly, very quickly”. Arai’s statement goes to show the enormous pressure that is on Honda, and also on McLaren. Fernando Alonso is already getting edgy and has been lashing out against his team via on board radio during the races, and while Jenson Button is a much more unagitated chap, his patience is not endless.

 

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