“How the mighty have fallen.” “Alonso I feel should have taken that sabbatical after all…instead of dirtying his hands with this piece of garbage of a car.” “McLaren should switch back to Mercedes for the rest of the season.” These are just some of the comments people are posting on social media about McLaren Honda in the wake of the Australian Grand Prix. These reactions, although made out of understandable frustration, are short-sighted. Here’s why:
Let’s begin with the engine itself. Many of us here could calculate the power of the Mercedes ICE and come reasonably close if we took some time to do the math. If we could do it, Honda definitely knew what target they had to hit with margin to account for this year’s development tokens (of which Honda still has 9 remaining). With that in mind we also learned Honda had at least a dozen of these engines on the dyno undergoing stress tests over the preceding months with no massive disasters apparent; Honda is an exemplary engine-builder after all. We’ve also read and heard from several sources that the engine is still “turned down” to some degree (one source familiar with Honda says in the neighborhood of 30%) to preserve it in relation to its various ERS attachments. So let’s assume the ICE itself is good.
The ERS systems functioning in the way and manner which they do in the new V6 Hybrd era is somewhat new to Honda. So it would stand to reason that is an area where they’re tripping up. This was demonstrated during preseason testing at both Jerez and Barcelona when multiple issues with the MGU-K haunted the team. This is something that may not have been easily tested with engines on a dyno, rather everything needed to be married together and running in the car. We also know that one of McLaren’s strong areas is electronics which are no doubt present on the car. So it also stands to reason that software and systems communications issues between Honda and McLaren hardware are in the mix as well and McLaren as much as admitted this. Provided there are no other fatal flaws lurking within the ERS hardware, software is something that can and will be sorted out in relatively short order.
Next we have McLaren’s chassis which has been dubbed the first “Size 0” Formula 1 car, employing a number of unique packaging strategies in order to achieve maximum aerodynamic efficiency. This is thanks in part to new Chief Engineer, Peter Prodromou, former Chief Aerodynamicist for Red Bull Racing. While the lack of running at speed has only given us anecdotal proof of concept, pundits and aerodynamicists up and down the paddock have praised the package as being relevant for future success.
The proof, as they say, is in the pudding so here’s some perspective from actual running. During winter testing Kevin Magnussen put in the fastest lap the MP4-30 achieved in Barcelona (1:25.225) and while it was still well behind the Silver Arrows of Mercedes when we consider the aforementioned facts that the engine was still turned down and the ERS systems weren’t functioning together in harmony this is not a bad sign. Then during the last lap of the Australian GP, Jenson Button managed a 1:33.338 which isn’t terribly uncompetitive for a race lap keeping in mind that most of the field was in the 1:32 range with fast lap being set by Lewis Hamilton at 1:30.945. What’s more is this occurred after the car ran for a full 56 laps, more than it ever has before. Again, if we know the engine is still running a conservative map and software issues with ERS are still present, this is encouraging.
What do we know of these two companies themselves, McLaren and Honda? They are both driven by success, motivated by pride, and hungry to perpetuate greatness. So while they are undeniably off to a rough start with more pain sure to come, when put into context the foundation appears to be there, the issues are not insurmountable, and the resources of these two organizations will come together and begin to give fans the results that are expected from this partnership. If you’re Mercedes, this is the team you’re watching out for in 2016.