We’re in the garage as the new dream team hits the track


Two days after the fan­fare and in­ten­sity

of the world cham­pi­onship show­down, the Abu Dhabi pit­lane is tran­quil once again. The crowds have drifted away, the hang­ers-on have jet­ted out and the rau­cous, party-fu­elled yachts are now silent. All that re­mains is a skele­ton crew; a For­mula 1 pad­dock whit­tled down to the hard­core few, the cease­less me­chan­ics, hun­gry young rac­ers and 24/7 F1 folk who can­not say farewell to the 2014 sea­son. Truth be told, this is no longer 2014. This is the rst day of the 2015 cam­paign.

To­day marks a new era for two of the most iconic teams in F1. At one end of the pit­lane, Se­bas­tian Vet­tel is meet­ing and greet­ing his new Fer­rari me­chan­ics. Sur­rounded by red, the four-time world cham­pion is mak­ing friends; get­ting used to his new home.

From the cen­tre of the pit­lane comes the sound of in­tense fet­tling. Two screens shield a car sur­rounded by yel­low high-volt­age Tens­abar­ri­ers. A McLaren chas­sis, el­e­vated on stands, its floor off, is hav­ing its electrics rewired. Sig­nif­i­cantly, ev­ery­one in the garage is wear­ing brand new, ice-white T-shirts. The Mercedes three­p­ointed-star is no longer vis­i­ble and the ‘H’ logo of Honda is now proudly dis­played in­stead. To­day marks the re­turn of an iconic part­ner­ship; the re­uni­fi­ca­tion of Honda and McLaren. The Ja­panese mo­tor gi­ant is back in F1, but on this his­toric rst day, all is not well…

When you have an elec­tri­cal prob­lem it’s very dif­fi­cult to un­der­stand, be­cause it moves around the car. Fix it and then some­thing fur­ther down the wiring loom breaks”

Prior to this first pub­lic ap­pear­ance of

the new mo­tor, McLaren com­pleted a shake­down test at Sil­ver­stone in early Novem­ber for a ‘film­ing day’ to give the Honda its first run-out, with Oliver Tur­vey at the wheel. The 2014 chas­sis needed only small tweaks to ac­cept the Honda power unit, since the reg­u­la­tions have stan­dard­ised the mount­ing points for any en­gine. The in­terim de­vel­op­ment car, the MP4-29H/1X1, now sits silently in garage num­ber 21 as the first day of the Abu Dhabi Young Driver Test com­mences.

There is no sign that it will emerge in the first hour of run­ning, as chief en­gi­neer Phil Prew emerges from be­hind the black screens to con­firm this dis­ap­point­ing news. Those wait­ing to see the Honda run in anger for the first time will have to be pa­tient.

GP2 Se­ries run­ner-up and McLaren test driver Stof­fel Van­doorne has been tasked with driv­ing the in­terim ma­chine, but he’s not in his rac­ing over­alls yet. Another sign the car’s nowhere near ready. Team boss Eric Boul­lier en­ters the garage and chats with Prew and Kevin Mag­nussen and they look on at the work be­ing done to the wiring loom – the root of all the prob­lems.

“When you have an elec­tri­cal prob­lem, it’s a night­mare,” says Boul­lier shortly af­ter­wards. “It’s very dif­fi­cult to un­der­stand, be­cause it moves around the car. Overnight things went well; there were a cou­ple of is­sues but we fired up the car at 6am and were ready to go at 8.30am. Then some­thing else went wrong, which forced us to take the bat­tery pack off the car again. It’s not like this is a 12V bat­tery. Elec­tric­ity is a dif­fi­cult thing. You plug it in, you get a prob­lem. Fix it and then some­thing fur­ther down the wiring loom breaks. But that part was work­ing when the other part wasn’t. You’re al­ways chas­ing the prob­lem and, given the high volt­age, it’s a sen­si­tive area: th­ese things take time.”

Time is press­ing, un­like the first time McLaren and Honda ran to­gether at the end of 1987 (see panel op­po­site) when test­ing was vir­tu­ally un­lim­ited. Now, it’s highly re­stricted. If there is no run­ning in th­ese two test days, the next op­por­tu­nity to drive the car won’t be un­til the Jerez test at the be­gin­ning of Fe­bru­ary, five weeks be­fore the 2015 Aus­tralian GP.

The lunch hour comes and goes and there is still no in­di­ca­tion that the 29H/1X1 is ready to run. Over­head clouds start are start­ing to gather over the pit­lane: a por­tent per­haps of the trou­bles ahead.

The gen­e­sis for this day came dur­ing 2009 when Mercedes de­cided to go it alone and start their

own F1 team. After unit­ing with McLaren in 1995, the part­ner­ship went on to ac­crue 78 race wins, one con­struc­tors’ cham­pi­onship and two driv­ers’ world ti­tles. But the decision to buy out Brawn GP and be­come a works en­tity meant McLaren had to chase other en­gine part­ners. Fi­nally, the works part­ner­ship with Honda came to fruition and after pulling their own team out in 2008 (which iron­i­cally led to the for­ma­tion of dou­ble-ti­tle-win­ners Brawn GP), Honda are back.

“If you have a works deal, you have more chance of suc­ceed­ing in F1 than if you were a cus­tomer,” reaf­firms Boul­lier. “When the re­la­tion­ship with Mercedes changed and they went on their own, there was the plan for McLaren to be just a cus­tomer. From that point McLaren had to chase another works team so­lu­tion.

“The good thing is that we have ben­e­fited from past ex­pe­ri­ence be­tween both com­pa­nies. McLaren is used to hav­ing a works team re­la­tion­ship and we can un­der­stand, we can lis­ten, we can support Honda’s re­quests and vice versa. Over the past year this com­mit­tee and or­gan­i­sa­tion model has been in place and it is work­ing very well. Com­mu­ni­ca­tion is trans­par­ent. Ev­ery­one knows what they have to do and ev­ery­one is aware of what ev­ery­one else is do­ing.”

Honda’s re­search and de­vel­op­ment plant is based in Sakura, Ja­pan, but they have also es­tab­lished a small assem­bly fa­cil­ity in Mil­ton Keynes to cre­ate more of a seam­less shift into work­ing with the UK-based McLaren team. Part of this test is to tri­an­gu­late re­al­time data links be­tween Wok­ing and Mil­ton Keynes and the Abu Dhabi track (once the car is run­ning).

Honda’s re­turn co­in­cides with the orig­i­nal wishes of the sport’s reg­u­la­tors that switch­ing to di­rect-in­jec­tion turbo-charged V6 hy­brid power plants would at­tract more man­u­fac­tur­ers to the fuel-ef­fi­cient, road-rel­e­vant for­mula. A sen­ti­ment with which Honda mo­tor­sport chief Ya­suhisa Arai agrees: “Th­ese reg­u­la­tions are more suit­able to our line of work. Honda has al­ready de­vel­oped a hy­brid sys­tem and we have a lot of ex­pe­ri­ence in this eld. We learnt about run­ning with a down­sized turbo with di­rect in­jec­tion with our own mass pro­duc­tion car,” says Arai. “Th­ese en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly reg­u­la­tions are the rea­son for our come­back.”

The hope in Sakura is that this time round, the re­turn on in­vest­ment will be bet­ter than it was for the Ja­panese man­u­fac­turer’s last foray into For­mula 1. The var­i­ous guises of the BAR-Honda team that year after year pro­duced poor ma­chin­ery for Jen­son But­ton to grow in­creas­ingly frus­trated with are still fresh in the mem­ory. A soli­tary grand prix vic­tory at the wet Hun­gar­ian GP in 2006 was their only suc­cess in a num­ber of bar­ren sea­sons.

Ri­vals Toy­ota proved no bet­ter as their F1 as­pi­ra­tions were also plagued by bu­reau­cracy. One ex­am­ple of the level of red-tape in­volved back then was the story of the se­nior en­gi­neer who spent an en­tire week­end in­volved in an email chain with Ja­pan about why the Euro­pean en­gi­neers were stay­ing on a higher oor of his ho­tel – in his belief, a more se­nior level. Hence­forth, the email con­cluded, en­gi­neers from both Ja­pan and Europe would in fu­ture have to stay in rooms on the same oor.

To­day, there is a clear de­lin­eation be­tween roles; McLaren build the chas­sis. Honda the en­gine. So Boul­lier be­lieves there won’t be a re­peat of Honda’s poor per­for­mance. “They have gone back to their roots,” he says. “They are an en­gine man­u­fac­turer, we are not. We know how to build a chas­sis and we just make sure both com­pa­nies click and work to­gether. ”

It’s one job to en­sure Honda and McLaren click, but it’s another to keep McLaren to­gether. In­ter­nally,

Honda are an en­gine man­u­fac­turer, we are not. We know how to build a chas­sis and we just make sure both com­pa­nies click”

all is not well at board­room level, with a bit­ter ght rag­ing be­tween the re­turn­ing Ron Den­nis and fel­low share­holder Man­sour Oj­jeh.

When Boul­lier ar­rived at the be­gin­ning of the year, his pri­or­i­ties were to stream­line the or­gan­i­sa­tion, bring about efcien­cies (ie re­dun­dan­cies), re-in­tro­duce lead­er­ship and set about ac­quir­ing the best driv­ers to take the team for­ward. He ac­knowl­edges that the ac­qui­si­tion of a ti­tle spon­sor would help fund the next stage of de­vel­op­ment, but he also knows that there needs to be a res­o­lu­tion to the prob­lems up­stairs.

“Noth­ing is rosy and I think there is some trust to be re­built by some board mem­bers,” he says, choos­ing his words care­fully. “But what­ever way peo­ple op­er­ate, the common ground is the in­ter­est of the company.”

This year is a new dawn for McLaren-Honda. A new works part­ner­ship, a stream­lined work­force, the MP4-30 de­signed with aero ex­per­tise from for­mer Red Bull man Peter Pro­dro­mou. Oh, and there’s the small mat­ter of Fer­nando Alonso join­ing the team, too, on a three-year deal, and the rather be­lated decision to re­tain Jen­son But­ton in a race seat with Kevin Mag­nussen kept on as as test and re­serve driver.

As the clock ticks to­wards three in the

af­ter­noon, there is a urry of ac­tiv­ity at the front of garage 21. A me­chanic crosses the pit­lane with a pit­board that reads ‘Stof­fel’. A stack of tyres is wheeled inside and side­pods are at­tached to the car. Van­doorne sits in the cock­pit and the Honda 1X1 res into life.

Fi­nally the screens part and the sig­nal is given for Stof­fel to exit the pits. The de­vel­op­ment car bursts out of the garage and into the pit­lane for an in­stal­la­tion lap. It’s only one lap, but it’s enough. For those pa­tient few, they have wit­nessed the re­birth of an F1 dy­nasty: McLaren and Honda re­united. And de­spite limited run­ning over the fol­low­ing day, this project is only mir­ror­ing the dis­as­trous start Red Bull and Re­nault had at the Jerez test last Fe­bru­ary. And they man­aged to take three grand prix wins be­fore the sea­son was over.

“This is a start­ing point, even if we have not done much in terms of data,” says Boul­lier. “But we are two and a half months in ad­vance of where ev­ery­one was at the start of 2014. And at least we have run. We all want to go to Mel­bourne think­ing that we could win the race... I know we can dream.”

There will be long nights in Wok­ing, Mil­ton Keynes and Sakura where en­gi­neers won’t get the chance to sleep, let alone dream. But if mi­cro prob­lems in the wiring loom and macro is­sues in the board­room can be re­solved, keep an eye on what Alonso can achieve in the Honda-pow­ered McLaren MP4-30 in 2015.

I think there is some trust to be re­built by some board mem­bers. But what­ever way peo­ple op­er­ate, the common ground is the in­ter­est of the company”

It’s a long wait for McLaren-Honda test driver Stof­fel Van­doorne (bot­tom) as the me­chan­ics work hard to re­solve a prob­lem with the car’s wiring loom

Staff from both sides of the part­ner­ship have learnt from the mis­takes of the past and know that the key to suc­cess lies in good com­mu­ni­ca­tion

Stof­fel Van­doorne climbs into the MP4-29H/1X1 and takes it out for its first lap of the Yas Ma­rina cir­cuit

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