MCLAREN AND HONDA
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 efciencies (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