The Last Samurai

Two thirds of the Formula 1 comeback season for the pair McLaren F1 and Honda have been disastrous. Consequently, Honda F1 boss Yasuhisa Arai is under heavy fire.

After 15 of 19 races of the 2015 season, McLaren have scored a pitiful 19 points and are just ahead of chanceless Manor GP (who still have zero points) in the constructors’ standings. At the same stage last season, the Woking-based outfit had 111 points to its tally, including two podium finishes and was battling for P4 in the team pecking order with Ferrari and Force India. For a team that has no less than 182 GP wins to its name, a season-best P5 by Fernando Alonso in the latest Hungarian Grand Prix is a slap in the face, to say the least. Ron Dennis’ outfit has 20 F1 championships under its belt and thus, expectations are high. But Honda’s are even higher. The proud Japanese manufacturers have a reputation to defend in Formula 1 and the current campaign has more than hampered it. No wonder quite a number of directors in Tokyo have demanded sacking Formula 1 project boss Yasuhisa Arai.

Thunder blunder

“It has been a really tough start to our Formula 1 return. We have had a lot of issues to contend with, but thankfully most of them have now been overcome. We are feeling more positive about the second half of the season”, a visibly tarnished Arai stated at recent press conference. “The sport has changed immensely since the McLaren-Honda ‘glory days’. The current technology is much more sophisticated and it is tough to make a good racing car. We knew it wouldn’t be easy, but perhaps we didn’t imagine that it would be this hard”, he added, doing everything possible to appear calm. However, if a project head reveals such a statement to the press, one can rest assured that on the inside the atmosphere is seething.

You cannot compare the 1980s with today, because Honda then joined McLaren after having been in Formula 1 for five years.

Star driver Alonso has added fuel to the fire stating recently “we are like a different category. When everyone passes you so easily like that, you look like an amateur driver and that is not good. We are 35 kph behind Ferrari on the straights and we constantly have to save fuel. We are not super competitive now”, meaning, we don’t stand a chance and I am pretty pissed off about it.

Dogged by persistent reliability and power unit problems, McLaren racing director Eric Boullier had a hard time keeping hot-blooded Alonso and even much more reasonable Jenson Button under control. Through winter testing the team only managed 1,087 miles in the twelve days, while rivals Mercedes clocked up over 11,000 miles. It was clear that Honda’s package was not ready and needed a lot of work to just keep running let alone to be competitive. “I certainly didn’t imagine technology-wise what we would be facing, but I have complete confidence in the direction we have taken with our power unit. We needed to create something radical in order to beat the top teams, and that is our ultimate goal – to beat the best”, Arai disclosed the original plan. Considering that the “top team challenging engine” has failed to function on eleven of twenty possible occasions, and that although it offers far less power than its competitors Mercedes or Ferrari, Arai’s plan has simply fallen through. And Dennis is apparently tired of waiting much longer.

Japanese obstinacy

Building on their large experience and expertise in engine manufacturing, Honda decided to go their own way regarding their return to Formula 1. And precisely that has turned out to be a mistake. Instead of turning to the existing competition and trying to lure experts away from Mercedes, Ferrari or Renault with a better salary or post, Honda started their comeback adventure from scratch. The proud Japanese wanted to show the European long-noses that they are well capable of producing the best.

“Renault, Mercedes and Ferrari had concentrated their resources on the new hybrid technology, but these guys also know current Formula 1 technology inside out”, Boullier has criticised. Honda’s most recent experience with the elite category of the sport had dated back to the 2008 season, when the then works team belonged to the backmarkers. “Most people at Honda in Sakura had no idea of what was the state-of-the-art in Formula 1 today. So they first had to learn what we were used to before they could start developing what we are now supposed to use“, the Frenchman added. Moreover, the strict limitation of test days has also been a blow to Honda’s development programme, as reliability issues can best be sorted out by trying, trying and trying again. However, Boullier’s pressure is like water off a duck’s back to Honda. “It’s a nice idea, but it would be really difficult signing an engineer from Ferrari, Mercedes or any other team. It would be complicated for them to work with us, because our culture is entirely different, and so are the tools and simulations. It is simply not the way we work”, Arai countered. Considering the Japanese’s lack of progress, a change of culture might help.

Not back to square one

In Australia the car was about three seconds off the front runners’ pace and was at the back of the pack only just keeping up with the Force Indias. Since then McLaren may not have moved up through the field, but the car certainly has improved on pace, and Honda have promised they are turning up the engine slowly race by race. Alonso’s fifth place finish in Budapest was a first light at the end of the tunnel, but Spa and Monza showed that it was only a one hit wonder. The two parties reunited for the 2015 season hoping to eventually replicate the dominance of their first collaboration between 1988 and 1992. Back then Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost won 15 of the ’88 season’s 16 Grands Prix in their McLaren-Hondas.

It has been a really tough start to our Formula 1 return. We have had a lot of issues to contend with, but thankfully most of them have now been overcome.

Four straight years of Formula 1 title doubles were only halted by Nigel Mansell and Williams-Renault in 1992. “You cannot compare the 1980s with today, because Honda then joined McLaren after having been in Formula 1 for five years. This time, they are equally committed, but they started two years ago and clearly that’s not enough to be competitive in Formula 1.” Regardless, Arai and his likes are confident to be taking the right steps:  “Hungaroring was a small turning point for us. Our engineers worked very hard to maximise the power out of the hardware we had at the track, through energy mapping and deployment suited to the track and the driving characteristics of the two drivers. Going into the second half of the season, knowing that we are progressing is reassuring”. And Arai needs all self-affirmation he can rake together, as the pressure on him is enormous. “I think Honda’s development method is very different to Formula 1 and McLaren. Of course I have big pressure on my shoulders – especially from the fans, the Honda board and my colleagues, but this is completely normal. I think that I have what it takes to drive this project, but I can’t decide my own future, neither can the media or McLaren board members. I hope to continue driving this project and I believe that our board members trust me emphatically”. In the four races after Hungary, McLaren scored no more points and even suffered a double DNF in Singapore…

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