MCLAREN MUST DELIVER
Woking squad has improved, but by how much? By Rob Ladbrook
Melbourne: March 15, 2015. Mclaren heads hang in the garage. The first race weekend with Honda power had been a disaster. The two cars qualified slowest and one didn’t even make the start. Jenson Button – a former world champion – had at least finished the race against the odds, but an embarrassing two laps down.
It was the start of a torrid campaign for one of the sport’s biggest names. Second-to-last in the Constructors’ Championship – ahead only of pointless Manor – and with just 27-points to its name, Mclaren’s season was probably its worst ever.
Mclaren is on the longest winless run in its history, having last claimed the top step of the podium in Brazil in 2012. Mclaren and engine partner Honda are under immense pressure to turn things around this season, both in terms of reputation and finances. Sponsors have deserted and F1 revenues have decreased along with the slide down the constructors’ table.
But there are green shoots among the troubles, as this year Mclaren-Honda finds itself on a far more stable footing. Admittedly it’s not looking like a championship, or even race-winning footing as yet, but at least it’s distinct progress.
Of all the teams, Mclaren-honda had the biggest winter rebuild job on its hands. The combination of poor reliability allied to a lack of outright grunt meant the team made woefully slow development progress last year, before eventually switching focus to 2016 altogether. The manhours have been racked up at both Woking and Honda’s engine facilities in both Brackley and Tochigi, Japan. There was a determination to make up for 2015’s abject failure.
Testing has shown a distinct improvement over 2015. Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso racked up 710 laps over the eight days at Barcelona, stark contrast to the 301 during a gremlin-ridden month last year. While that number may still be the third-lowest of all the teams this year, team head Eric Boullier says it comes as a big morale boost.
“Last year we couldn’t do anything on the car, checking nothing,” he says. “This year we went through a lot – job lists, checklists. In terms of systems and even the car itself, we pushed some limits on some new designs. Some failed, some didn’t, but I am very happy with the results.
“At least we have covered the mileage, so we are much more prepared and much more comfortable for this year. We are also feeding more data back into the machines, so we know where to go and it’s going to be a big boost to us for development over the season.”
The centre of Mclaren, or rather Honda’s, focus over the winter was finding more from its power unit and energy recovery systems. Last year’s MP4-30 chassis wasn’t bad in terms of fundamental balance, but what let it down was a lack of power. Mclaren placed blame squarely at Honda’s ERS systems for its deficiencies in a straight line. Honda has responded with a completely redesigned turbo and sweeping improvements to its electrical energy recovery and deployment systems.
“The progress in that area [ERS] has been massive,” says Button. “It is something we knew we had to work on. Deployment is not something we could work massively on last year with the compressor, but we have been able to over the winter.
“Honda has done a great job bringing that to testing and we have had no reliability issues with it at all. At some circuits in the race we were losing 0.6s every lap because we didn’t have the deployment. Now the system is working well and from here on I think it is marginal gains compared to our competitors. It has been a good, and necessary step forward.
“I would say it is the biggest improvement I have felt with the power unit over the last 14 months. The improvements are good, but we are still a long way off the other guys and you can see that in the speed traps [where Mclaren lagged around 12mph down on the fastest]. But you can feel the difference on the initial part of the straight. We have really pushed the performance of the power unit.”
Honda has also restructured its staffing for this season, with underfire engine chief Yasuhisa Arai reassigned elsewhere to make way for Yusuke Hasegawa. Mclaren has made changes itself too, bringing in Jost Capito from the all-conquering Volkswagen World Rally Championship team as its new head of F1. Capito won’t arrive for a few months, so his influence will likely be felt from 2017 onwards.
From testing this year Mclaren has been able to learn much more about its new Honda power unit, and that will help significantly with development in-season. With 32 development tokens available, Honda chiefs are quick to point out that it still has scope to essentially redesign the engine should it need more major alterations.
As far as Mclaren’s chassis is concerned, there is promise too. The team ran at Barcelona without some key new components due to delays in manufacturing, and an upgrade package is predicted to arrive in time for the start of the season in Australia. New front and rear wings, sidepods and floor were gradually added throughout testing.
Boullier adds: “We were not running the full 2016 spec and we will have new parts for Australia, which unfortunately weren’t signed off [tested and validated] here. We are obviously trying to stretch, to be on the edge. We wanted to give the aerodynamicists the maximum time to develop the package.
“For us, testing was a good achievement. I think now we have a car ready for the start of the season, so I am definitely more confident and I think there will be more to come. The base looks OK and there will be more coming in the coming weeks.”
Here’s hoping so. After all, surely it can’t be worse than last year? ■
Mclaren has covered more ground in 2016
Mclaren has tested aero parts
Testing in 2015 was a disaster