“This winter is critical for one of the greatest partnerships in the history of Formula 1 – Mclaren-honda”
In spite of having two champion drivers, 2015 was an appalling year for these two giants of the sport, and my heart has bled for them. With only two top-six places from 19 races to show for their considerable efforts, now is crunch time. Will they continue to languish at the back when the new season begins or will they have learned from their failure and become competitive?
It all seems like a bad dream to me. I’ve seen Mclaren grow from a twinkle in Bruce’s eye to become superb multiple championship winners, and I was in the Isle of Man for the motorcycle TT races in 1954 when a fact-finding mission of Japanese (headed by a chap named Soichiro Honda) arrived to suss out what they needed to do to compete. They returned in 1959 to win the team prize, and since then they’ve dominated every category of motorsport from 50cc motorcycles to touring cars, sportscars, Indycars and F1. So when Mclaren’s Ron Dennis announced that Honda were producing a “jewel of an engine” for their return to F1 with Mclaren there was an assumption that Mercedes, Ferrari and the rest had better watch out.
We couldn’t have been more wrong. Honda started years after their rivals with the design of the most complex power units in the history of F1 and were hampered by limited testing. They underestimated the magnitude of their task, produced a less than optimum design (not helped by Mclaren’s insistence on inhibiting aero constraints) and never caught up. The result was that no matter how much Mclaren improved the car – and they did – it never had enough power to get the job done.
So what are the chances of a better 2016? Considerable, I believe, and here’s why. Honda have lost face in a big way. Like Renault, they have spent vast amounts of money, which has been counterproductive. They’ve tarnished their image with technical misjudgement and racing failure and that hurts. Glowing memories of Keke Rosberg, Nelson Piquet, Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna winning race after race and title after title have been replaced by those of Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button demeaningly struggling at the back of the grid.
So the midnight oil will be burning 24/7 in Japan this winter as Honda strive to put things right. But they have bright people, unrivalled research and development facilities, deep pockets, years of experience and determination. They’ve also had a year of learning to align their very different culture with that of Mclaren. If you put all that together you can expect results.
My one reservation is that Honda are in it for the long haul, whereas Mclaren need success now. Not just to be able to hold their heads up high again, but for commercial reasons, too. With the loss of sponsors Vodafone, TAG Heuer, Hugo Boss and, if rumours are to be believed, Johnnie Walker, the team’s finances must surely have been adversely affected.
Plus, of course, the fact that if Mclaren and Honda make progress over the winter, their rivals will, too. But, whatever, I’m expecting a rejuvenated Mclaren to grace the grids in 2016. They are one of the truly great teams of F1 and if Williams can revive their fortunes, as they so brilliantly have, then I like to think that Mclaren can do so, too. Fingers crossed – I’d hate to see the superb talents of Fernando and Jenson being frustrated by inadequate machinery for yet another year.