With the recent announcement that they will put an upgraded engine into use at the Canadian Grand Prix, it seems Honda may have an upswing in what has so far been a dismal racing season for them.
There should have been no practical reason for McLaren-Honda to perform as they have, given that both drivers are former World Champions – Button with one, and Alonso with two. Button, who has been with McLaren since 2010 following the buy-out of his previous team, Brawn by Mercedes, has been described as one of the most intelligent drivers in Formula 1. A good strategist in addition to being a smooth driver, Button said in 2013 that he intended to stay with McLaren until his retirement, although he did not say when that would be.
Button, who had problems with teammate Sergio Perez (now driving for Force India alongside Nico Hulkenberg) at McLaren in 2013, a difficult season for both himself and the team, found a new teammate in Kevin Magnussen, who had been part of McLaren’s Young Driver program. This season, as the several before it, McLaren were using Mercedes engines, with Honda not as yet invovled in the scheme of things. Button’s performance suffered a drastic downturn from that of the previous three years – he ended the 2013 season with significantly less than half the points he had scored the previous year, his position in the drivers’ standings dropping below the top 5 for the first time in 4 seasons.
A change of teammate brought better luck for Button the next year, and although he only had one podium through the entire racing season, he had more consistent performances, ending 2014, still driving a Mercedes-powered vehicle, with 126 points.
2015 brought big change for Button, with a new sponsor, power unit and teammate. Two-time World Champion and one of the greats of the sport, Fernando Alonso would drive with Button for the newly-rechristened McLaren-Honda. However, the unit has appeared unreliable so far – Button, driving at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix in a detuned McLaren finished qualifying in 17th, his teammate Magnussen right behind him. Button took slower laps to ensure the team racked up decent mileage with the energy recovery issues they had been dealing with. He finished in 11th, with Magnussen unable to complete the race due to engine failure.
At the time, Button had said he was “not surprised to see McLaren on the back row”, following a tough pre-season testing programme. "We ran low fuel in winter testing and super-soft tyres and we were not quick.” Teammate Magnussen echoed his sentiments, but mentioned the car itself was not difficult to drive, and was aerodynamically sound. Both repeated that the problems lay with the power unit and its output.
The Malaysian Grand Prix was nothing short of a disaster for McLaren-Honda. Button was again at 17th and his teammate, this time a recovered Fernando Alonso in 18th at the end of qualifying. Come race day, and Fernando Alonso, chugging along in 9th at Lap 21 suffered an engine failure, retiring from the race. 20 laps letter, Button’s car suffered a turbo failure, and he retired from the race as well.
The team’s engine problems continued into the Chinese Grand Prix, with Fernando Alonso bringing his car to a halt immediately after the installation lap following issues with his engine. Button had similar engine issues later into free practice, but was able to continue after being called into the pits. Both McLarens were eliminated in Q1, and had not as yet made it to Q2.
Button, colliding with Lotus’ Pastor Maldonado 48 laps into the race, forced the latter to retire with vehicle damage. Stewards found Button responsible for the incident, which involved an aggressive battle for position. He would finish the race in 13th, but received a 5 second penalty for causing the crash with Maldonado, and was reclassified to 14th. His teammate Alonso was ahead of him in 12th, racing with neither incident nor any particular success.
Bahrain brought similar problems – Button’s car broke down on the installation lap, which led to him being unable to set a time. He would end up not being able to start the race at all after McLaren were unable to reach his car to the grid due to the same electrical problems as before. Alonso finished in 14th.
A game of musical car-seat seemed to ensue afterwards – Spain, Alonso’s home race, proved unlucky for him this year with a brake failure forcing him to retire as Button finished near the bottom of the grid again.
Monaco was a no-points race for Alonso, just as the rest of the year – but it was the first scoring race for both McLaren-Honda and Button, who finished in 8th to take 4 points, which is McLaren’s total points tally so far this year.
With both drivers as well as the team’s reserve driver suffering repeated issues with the power unit, it seems as though this is the biggest cause of their issues. With a promised upgrade to be introduced at the Cirucit Gilles Villeneuve, will the team with two World Championship winning drivers see a change in fortunes?
The Canadian Grand Prix flags off this Friday, the 5th of June at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal, Canada.