Wok­ing squad has im­proved, but by how much? By Rob Lad­brook

Motor Sport News - - F1 Preview: Mclaren -

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

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