McLaren-Honda…a sinking ship?


McLaren and Honda; a match made in hell

Japan, Suzuka in late October 1988. The world has just witnessed one of the most dominant seasons ever by one team in the history of the sport and one of the most epic championship deciding races ever. Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost had locked out the front row grid positions in their McLaren F1 cars powered by one of the most powerful engines of all time, the Honda V6 turbo. For Honda and McLaren, their performance this season has been record breaking. Together they’ve won 15 of the 16 races and dominated qualifying.

As the lights for the start of the race go out, Senna stalls but manages to bump start his car as the incline on the start finish straight allows him to roll just enough. What follows is an epic drive through the field and then, in the closing laps a flat out race through a downpour on worn slick tyres. Senna is champion and the McLaren Honda MP4/4 is consigned to history as one of, if not THE greatest Formula One cars of all time.

Fast forward to September 2015 and the new McLaren Honda team and the MP4 – 30. In comparison to 1988 there are virtually no similarities, only opposites. Whilst the engine that they took out of their car last year (The Mercedes V6 turbo hybrid) dominates the field, the underpowered Honda unit which they replaced the Mercedes with has left a disappointing feeling amongst the paddock and the fans and a very sour taste in the mouth’s of those staff at McLaren who want to regain the glories of the past.

In contrast to 1988, McLaren Honda in 2015 have been beyond poor. 11 races into the season and they have 17 points to show for it. They certainly have no wins, podiums are an impossibility and even finding points is an enormous challenge and a rarity for them in their current state. To the drivers, world champion Jenson Button and double world champion Fernando Alonso, the car actually feels good to drive. This suggests that overall the chassis is good, so why are they slow? The Honda lump in the back of their car is massively underpowered.

The slow Honda power unit

One has to wonder how a company as esteemed as Honda can create an engine as slow as they have. The Honda RA615H Turbo engine has many flaws that just don’t work and even though these new era power units are highly complex, it’s surprising that Honda are struggling to fix the problems, particularly as we move towards the end of the 2015 campaign.

Before looking into why the Honda is so slow it’s useful to look at some statistics to put their lack of pace into context. Over the past handful of races the McLaren cars have generally qualified around 2.5 – 3 seconds off the pace of the pole sitters, Mercedes. They have missed out on getting into Q2 the majority of the time and have qualified as lowly as 18th place. Take into account that due to unreliability McLaren have often opted to change an engine and take a penalty so they have often started dead last.

In Monza, Alonso qualified 2.661secs off Lewis Hamilton’s pole position. Bearing in mind that Alonso had to contest with traffic from the off and Hamilton had a clear track in front of him, losing 2 – 2.7 seconds per lap on Hamilton meant that by lap 10 Alonso/Button were already 27 – 30 seconds off the pace of Hamilton with 43 laps still to go. F1 fans expect this of Manor Marussia or even Sauber but not McLaren.

In laymen’s terms it’s still difficult to explain why the Honda is so slow but here it goes. At the opening races Honda found it difficult to run their engine at full power because it would simply over heat and fail, thus an early dilemma faced them. Did they turn up the engines so that they could compete but certainly fail or detune the engines so they could last a race distance and hopefully gain a few points? The evidence suggested that they did a bit of both or rather, took the middle ground but the facts were clear to see. The Honda was grossly under powered in comparison to every other engine. and horribly unreliable.

For these new hybrid engines to work efficiently, all of its key elements need to work in harmony and within specific parameters (such as they are limited to using only 100kg of fuel per race and must have a top fuel flow rate of 100kg/hour). There are two distinct parts that make up the “power unit”; the engine and the hybrid system. The engines alone produce around 600 bhp which is minimal for a formula one engine. These engines though are light weight and super efficient. The turbo chargers that are used create twice the combustion pressure as the old V8 ones which means that good lubrication is key to prevent unnecessary wear and potential failures. With the addition of a Turbocharger, this allows extra torque and faster acceleration.

The hybrid systems are far more complex and exist to recycle wasted energy from other aspects of the car such as braking energy and convert that into something useful and electrical. The MGU-H and MGU-K aspects of the hybrid system should allow the complex systems to work as one. The MGU-H which is fixed to the turbocharger harvests heat energy from the exhaust gases and directs electrical energy to the MGU-K or to a battery to be stored for usage later on. The MGU-K focusses on converting kinetic energy (from constant braking) which it then converts into a boost of power (limited up to 160bhp) to be used per lap.

This is where McLaren Honda’s problems lie. Their engine and hybrid system…the “unit” will not work effectively together. The hybrid system is the main problem whilst the engine is actually sound. What happens almost every race for Honda is that the hybrid system will not effectively transform energy into the required amount of electrical energy that is required to allow the engine to run at full power. When it does, it simply overheats and fails. It was reported at Monza that the hybrid system only harvested or deployed enough energy to allow a small power boost down the straights. This means that the McLaren’s were running with a deficit of 100-160bhp to everybody else….that’s a horrendous deficiency.

Silly talk

Throughout the course of the season, personnel from both McLaren and Honda have talked themselves into some deep holes. In the early part of the season the drivers were confident that they would be scoring podiums by Hungary, whilst Alonso even went so far as to say that they would be in the frame to win the final race of the season!

The trouble is that everyone looks a bit sheepish. OK, everyone in the F1 paddock knew that as late starters (Honda only began to develop their engine in early 2013) Honda would perhaps be slow. But McLaren’s strong design team, engineers and sheer determination to win was believed to be enough to pull them through the worst of it and back to the front.

Last season Button was quoted as saying that this car would be one to watch whilst Ron Dennis spent the first quarter of this year telling the world that McLaren would be back to how it was in the late 1980’s, albeit not in 2015 but he did indicate that they would be well on their way to becoming competitive towards the end of 2015. Arai, the chief engineer for Honda’s F1 programme has not really delivered on his promises either. Making outlandish claims that the Honda is 25hp more efficient than the Renault unit is complete rubbish and it’s not making sense. Ron Dennis doesn’t suffer fools and he in turn doesn’t like to be made to look stupid. McLaren and Honda have “bigged” themselves up but failed to deliver…a bit like a champion boxer who talks a good game at the weigh-in then gets flattened with the first punch in the first round. They should feel a little silly.

Personnel from both companies have spewed out misguided statements that don’t make any sense, race after race. Honda were supposed to be in great form for Monaco and it was a disaster for them and they said the same about Hungary….a track that they felt could yield them a podium 4 months prior to visiting it. The newest one is Singapore where McLaren and Honda have turned around and said that they will be more competitive there than anywhere else. It seems they are clutching at straws and the strain is finally beginning to show.

Both Button and Alonso are looking increasingly frustrated with Honda’s lack of progress as is Ron Dennis, whilst Arai seems to be getting dragged in front of the worlds media an awful lot these days to face the scours of the world on his own. The McLaren chassis is supposed to be good, but it’s currently an all engine formula and Arai is under pressure.

An early divorce between McLaren and Honda?

The strain is showing quite publicly between McLaren and Honda now. It is only the first season of their reunion but it’s understandable as to why Ron Dennis is growing so impatient. In 1988 when McLaren first worked with Honda, the turbo engine they used had some key components missing from it compared to others but adversely it worked better than any one else’s. Did McLaren think that this would happen again 26 years later? That Honda would turn up and be faster than the dominant Mercedes? Probably not but they probably had more faith in Honda than they should have had.

McLaren are one of the greats of the sport. They have achieved so much yet remarkably they have yet to achieve a constructors title this century. They have also only spawned one world champion this century (Lewis Hamilton 2008) and indeed only one champion over the past 16 years. OK, they have suffered near misses where arguably Kimi Raikonnen, Alonso and Hamilton should have won 1 or more titles with them but they didn’t. Instead Ferrari, Renault F1 team, The Renault powered Red Bull team and now Mercedes have absolutely blown them away.

It is because of the lack of success that Ron Dennis came back to McLaren. During the middle to late part of the last decade, regulations changed and McLaren lost key engineers such as Adrian Newey to relative nobody’s and newcomer’s Red Bull. They were falling into the pit and unfortunately they continue to fall but have now hit rock bottom. The promise of a nostalgic return to Honda and potential world championships were Ron Dennis’s vision but it looks increasingly misguided, particularly the decision to switch from Mercedes power units. If they were powered by Renault then a switch to Honda wouldn’t have looked so misguided but to switch from the dominant engine supplier of the modern era seems like absolute madness.

Honda haven’t had the best of histories this century either. Again, in the past decade their own works team got worse and worse year on year. It was more about aerodynamic design rather than engine power but the Honda’s of 2007 and 2008 were appalling cars. They soon sold up at the end of 2008. Honda are also suffering in the domestic car trade. They are now reportedly the third best selling car in Japan. This is not an accolade as they were previously first years ago.

This past weekend saw Arai grilled again by the media and he refused to apologise for his companies power unit. It’s not easy but McLaren won’t wait around forever for them to fix the problem. Could McLaren drop Honda? Well, Ron Dennis seems keen to continue to work with Honda depending on how you interpret his request that Arai be replaced with immediate effect. This shows that Mclaren are shouldering the blame purely onto Honda and why not? I suppose that it’s justifiable that as has already been said, the drivers agree that the power unit is the problem and not the chassis…a hint that Mclaren’s side of the bargain has been kept but Honda’s hasn’t.

Mclaren’s future

 Since the beginning of the 21st century, Mclaren have slowly devolved from a world championship outfit to backmarkers. With Hamilton’s 2008 title now a distant memory and seemingly a “blip” considering how badly they have done over the past 15 years overall it’s probably only right that things really cannot get any worse. Maybe they haven’t had it as bad as some. Ferrari failed to win a constructors title between 1983 and 1999.

During the “noughties” and the first half of the “teenies” they have so often been the nearly men, finishing 2nd and 3rd in both drivers and constructors titles but things got worse than that. They’ve had drivers that have all been world champions. Raikonnen, Alonso, Hamilton and Button yet they lost 3 of those drivers to other teams (although Alonso famously returned in 2015). They’ve lost key staff and they’ve lost sponsorship. The drivers race suits are stark and bare with virtually zero sponsorship on show. Mclaren 2015 are a far cry from the Mclaren team of 1988 or indeed 1998 and 2008 when they were successful.

For now Mclaren are stuck between a rock and a hard place. They cannot realistically severe ties with Honda after just one year. What other option could they take up? They have a great relationship with Mercedes; their former supplier of almost 20 years but with Red Bull seemingly cutting ties earlier than expected with Renault, Mercedes may end up supplying them so perhaps would refuse to supply Mclaren as well.  It’s doubtful that they would opt for the underpowered Renault unit and it’s an absolute certainty that they wouldn’t dare turn to historic rivals Ferrari to supply their engine…in fact i would not only eat my hat if that happened but also my entire wardrobe!

There is an interesting scenario brewing here. Red Bull may be refused by Mercedes for an engine and it was interesting that Christian Horner was seen in a lengthy discussion with Ferrari personnel in their motor home at Monza. Should Red Bull take a Ferrari engine (which they had in 2006) then what would Renault do? It’s been reported that they may buy out Lotus to re-start a Renault works team. Lotus are reputed to have received interest from another prospective buyer whilst Renault powered Toro Rosso have also been rumoured to be candidates for another potential owner to come in and buy the team.

This is all significant because it throws up the question of who is powering who? Mercedes won’t want to compete against several “customer” teams of theirs. Imagine their dominance ending to a Red Bull that is powered by a second grade Mercedes engine…forget it.

If Mclaren chose to switch to another supplier then they face a dilemma. Their lack of current sponsorship is well documented and they are set to lose £20 million in TV revenue and race winnings due to their low constructors championship position. A new power unit from a different company would mean that a new partnership with new personnel would need to be struck up and the design of the chassis would have to dramatically change in order for the power unit to A) fit in the car and B) they would need to retain a good aerodynamic structure.

The best possible solution is for them to perhaps seek a better partnership internally with Honda which seems to be happening. Ron Dennis will press Honda for better personnel and this has begun with the boss of Honda, Arai. Honda could easily turn around and say that they don’t want to be involved with Mclaren (like Renault did with Red Bull and vice versa) and negotiate an early release from their contract together but it’s too late in the season. If Honda simply pulled out then Mclaren won’t be on the grid next year. Honda have also invested a lot of time and money into this project and won’t lose face by simply pulling out.

Mclaren are also at a turning point with their drivers. Button wants to know in the next couple of weeks if he will have a drive in 2016 and he doesn’t seem anywhere near as keen to stay as he did last season. Alonso on the other hand is quite interesting. Despite claiming that he is in for the long haul, in a recent interview he was asked about the future of Mclaren and without any provocation he made a statement about retirement. Has he had enough?

It’s all doom and gloom but on a positive note it’s likely that Mclaren have been shocked by Honda’s lack of progress and are embarrassed about the situation so will certainly do something about it. After 2016 the regulations change again and although the engines will seemingly remain unchanged, 18 months should be enough time for them to set realistic targets for success. It will come, it’s just a matter of when. Whether they will find success with Honda is yet to be seen but if they do, it will be one of the greatest recovery’s of all time. We need McLaren back at the front.