When Honda announced its return to Formula 1 as engine partners to McLaren, expectations reached sky high. But the first year of their partnership was nothing short of a nightmare.
It wouldn’t be incorrect to say that Honda underestimated the challenge of designing complex V6 hybrid power units that form the heart of current regulation in Formula 1.
The Japanese manufacturer announced its F1 return in 2013, leaving itself with limited time to staff the organisation and build the requisite infrastructure facilities. This time-consuming process had to be completed before they could even start with the actual design process of the engine and the recovery system.
Powerful? Reliable? Neither.
Although tech pundits were impressed by some aspects of the engine, including the Mercedes-style split compressor and turbo, it remained unreliable and underpowered all year long, despite claims to make major leapways using engine tokens.
McLaren accumulated grid penalties of a whopping 310 positions over the course of the 19-race season. Fortunately for them, FIA simplified the engine-related penalty system, meaning the worst-possible penalty for a driver was starting from the back of the grid.
Unreliability was just a part of the problem. The engine simply didn’t have the same grunt of its rivals, making drivers a sitting duck on the straights. Even with DRS activated, the McLaren was slower on the straights than the cars powered by Mercedes, Ferrari or the Renault engine.
Chassis not up to the mark
McLaren also made tall claims about its chassis, which, more often than not, were not proved by its performance on track. Yes, by the end of the season, the MP4-30 was probably the fourth best chassis on the field, but anything less than the top-three is below-par for a team of the might of McLaren.
Another important aspect that we would like to delve is the size-zero concept. While there were obvious aero benefits of such tight packaging, it partly played a role in Honda’s engine woes.
A waste of talent
But that didn’t make the life of world champions Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso any easier, as both were relegated to the rear of the field, having been used to fighting at the front.
Although the two drivers tried to remain positive all year long and repeatedly talked about making ‘progress’ - typical PR stuff-, there were some visible signs of frustration. After the end of the season, Button admitted to have pondered over retiring, while Fernando Alonso apparently considered taking a sabbatical, according to McLaren Group chief Ron Dennis.
The Spaniard infamously chanted the words ‘GP2 engine’ at the Japanese Grand Prix, comparing Honda’s F1 engine with that used in F1’s feeder series.
Results were far and few
Speaking of results, Button scored team’s first points at the sixth race of the season in Monaco, crossing the finish line in eighth place. A fifth place finish followed in a dramatic Hungarian Grand Prix, but this time it was Fernando Alonso who led the charge for the Woking-based outfit.
Apart from the aforementioned two results, and another sixth place finish at Austin, the results were nothing short of embarrassing.
McLaren ended the season ninth in the constructors standings, only ahead of minnows Manor who were running a 2014 chassis and engine. It was their worst result in nearly 30 years and sums up their current troubles perfectly.
Possible Financial issues?
Although McLaren insists that it will fill the budget hole caused by the fall results-based FOM income with revenue from its burgeoning automotive arm, its long term financial health will depend on a significant upturn in performance.
Lack of results have already led to a sponsor exodus, with Dennis unwilling to reduce the rate card.
Looking ahead to 2016
Honda will be looking forward to use the winter break to close the deficit to other manufacturers, while also ensuring that the engine is bulletproof. McLaren also has a job in hands to ensure the chassis is top notch.
The best part about the McLaren-Honda partnership is that the two parties are willing to work together to move forward, instead of cribbing about each other. One can hope that this will pull the two companies out of their current miseries and onto the sharp end of the field.
But it won’t be a walk in the park for either of the two.