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McLaren-Honda: Why is everything going wrong for the team?

Analysing the problems of McLaren-Honda in the 2015 F1 championship.

McLaren getting the blues from Honda

It has almost been 3 months and McLaren is still nowhere close to the dreams which all the fans, like you and me, had been hoping to see for the 2015 season. The team, since pre-season testing, has just completed a hand full of laps whilst being nowhere near the top in terms of race and qualifying pace, or lap times.

And, their double retirement at the last week’s Malaysia Grand Prix, reminded us that hard work and hard times is in store for the team. The amount of pressure on the British team is increasing race by race. And, on top of that, the salt on the wound was arch rival Ferrari’s triumph last weekend. This acted as another jolt to the beleaguered team’s fortunes. But, what are the factors which are tormenting the team, and how come McLaren have failed, whereas nemesis Ferrari has picked up the game from last year.

Let us take a glance in spaces, where Ron Dennis and his men are faltering.

The distance from the apex of the Formula 1 Grid

Before we try to understand where the team is going wrong, we have to decipher by how much is the team going wrong by. Since, Formula 1 is all about time, it can easily act as a great platform or measurement tool to know McLaren’s current plight. For example, McLaren, in the hands of Jenson Button, were more than 5 seconds off Lewis Hamilton’s pole time in Australia. And, for the Q3 cut off, the McLaren was nearly a second off from the 15th slowest time during Q1.

Although, on the Sunday race, Button did see the chequered flag, albeit 2 laps down, unlike his then teammate Kevin Mangnussen, who couldn’t even see the race-start thanks to an engine failure whilst lining up on the grid slot.  

Forwarding to the Malaysia Grand Prix, nothing really changed. The McLaren duo were nearly 2 and quarter seconds off Nico Rosberg’s fastest Q2 time and exactly 6-tens off the Q1 cut off. They were last on the grid, ahead of the Manor-Marussia only.

In the race, both cars at Sepang had to retire because Power Unit (Turbo) and Engine Problems respectively. Still, this was of course a significant lap time improvement from Australia to Malaysia, as the drivers did see some action on the mid field before they retired. But, unfortunately, we can decipher that, this density of improvement is not enough to set the world on fire for the upcoming Chinese Grand Prix.

The teething issues with the Honda Power Unit

The significant amount of the blame for this poor show can be put on Honda. The Japanese power unit manufacturer had made a sensational comeback to the sport this season as McLaren’s engine supplier. But, apart from renewing the old partnership, nothing good has come out of the renewed partnership as yet. The engine unit has faced several teething and early technical problems, and Honda is working hard together with McLaren to rectify these issues. The basic gist of it is that; the Honda units at the back of the McLaren Mp4-30 are unreliable and subsequently pretty much down on power then rest of Engine Units on the grid.

Now, this was expected, in fact, even last year, Mercedes, Renault and Ferrari power units had faced teething problems regarding reliability and pace when the modern 1.6 liter V6 turbo era began. However, race by race, the teams got to the bottom of the problems, and during the season they rectified most of the aspects pretty efficiently. 

Honda has to do the same, and thanks to the engine upgrade tokens (in total 9) available to them for this year; they can get their head down and work over some specifically mentioned parts of their unit

For Honda, it is also quite possible that this year might just all up about learning and getting educated, rather than about generating lap times. This may seem an abhorrent proposition for some fans, but in the long term, it might not be a bad idea. That’s because reliability is paramount at the moment.

Till date, the Honda engine has never being used at 100 percent capacity by McLaren, for reliability factors. And, up-till now, that has created ambivalent outcomes; in slow lap times and a hope of better reliability. But, reliability is the key for team’s long-term success, and hence opting for a detuned-unit is preferable, hence.  

What exactly are the problems with the Honda Power Unit?

Some experts are saying that the fundamental base of the engine is quite solid and good as a power producer. However, the small faults with the Honda engine lies in various departments of the unit. And these small issues, in a regular and an accumulating manner, are creating titanic complications for the team.

For a fact, the engine, supplied by Honda, has various electrical issues to start with, and that’s why we often we see the spectacular blow ups of them. The MGUK of the whole package is also very faulty which has created issues throughout winter-testing. While during the Malaysian Grand Prix, Button’s Turbo part of the Power Unit had died. Thus, we can even say, Honda has to do a total revamp of their Engine and Power Units, as so many issues are drawing them back.

Besides, all this, there is a rumor going around the paddock that Fernando Alonso’s testing crash was also because of a car failure, which can be traced back to the electrical and battery components of the car. Although, we cannot speculate on these rumors, till we have much clearer and factual picture over it.

But, we also have to remember that, as per the rules, only 4 engines are allocated in a season to each driver. Thus, not keeping up with engine reliability can generate penalties for the team later in the season. However, even this smoke cloud can have silver lining. As the more McLaren run the units (and unfortunately run with a greater chance of them blow up), the more Honda will get closer to answers of its power unit’s riddle.

The performance of the MP4-30 is taking the hit in all this

The birth of MP4-30 started the evolution of its predecessor, the MP4-29. That chassis was trimmed and fitted with a new Honda engine during the final testing sessions of the 2014 year, so that McLaren could get an idea about how to make, create, carve and design the car around the engine. Although the team faced various issues with the engine , this was still a good base to start with, and hence the car’s magnificent packing.

There is a good chance that we might never find out how fast the actual MP4-30 is in terms of race-pace and qualifying trim. The MP4-30 is the McLaren’s 2015 challenge for the season, and it is the first car, in a long time, designed from Woking under the supervision of Chief Engineer and renowned Aerodynamist Peter Prodromou. The former Red Bull man had joined the British squad last season, and his car is a fine piece of art, which has all the Prodromou tell-tale signs. 

The challenger is very beautifully and carefully packed around the Honda Engine and Power Unit; a leaf, which is taken from the book of Mercedes. This has made the car very slim and trim at the back, and that’s why, the car’s rear end is packed effectively in order to gain fast lap times. The pundits in the paddock have called this car a very neatly packaged unit, and because it is designed and created around the engine, the chances are that, it is a fast chassis. However, the engine itself is not really up to the mark, hence the McLaren boys cannot unleash its actual pace.

The car itself has a very ‘Red Bull styled’ front wing, and recently, the team included an S-Duct over the nose section too. So, continuous development is going on in woking to make the car faster to cover up the compromises and short comings of the engine.

And a slow engine means the car looks even slower than normal

There is a notion in F1 that, once a car is slow, it becomes even slower. That’s because, it cannot generate temperature in the tiers and it cannot create the down force, as it cannot go fast enough to work the aerodynamics of the car. Well, these are of course the issues the McLaren MP4-30 is facing because Honda is requesting them to run the engine detuned.

But, as above said, this detuning is quite necessary for the engines to stay on during a Grand Prix weekend. This simply means McLaren can get extra time with the engine and hence it can felicitate better and faster development of the units. Thus, this is also a reason why we have seen such a huge gap and time difference between McLaren and rest of the field. But, this is important for the “Greater Good”, and McLaren understand this.

That’s why, team boss Dennis admits keeping the engines in tact is very vital for the future. He believes reliability is the key now, to build a stronger base for tomorrow. On that matter he said; “Keeping an engine in one piece in this early part of the season is critical for accelerating development”

So, knowing what exactly the car holds, in terms of pace, is still a mystery rapped in an enigma for us. In fact, the best McLaren can hope for this year is replicating the Red Bull ‘strategy’ from last season. In it, the team had to compensate their lack of power from the Renault engines by tweaking the down-force levels for extra straight line speed.

This ultimately meant the car couldn’t corner the way it was designed to, but still were near competitive on the straight to churn out an overall decent lap time. The same model can be used by McLaren (and I guess they already are using it).

The new era at McLaren not going the way it was planned

Going with Honda power was right or wrong?

McLaren has a very good technical and non-technical team in their folds. The decision to shift from reliable Mercedes power (which they had used for 19 years, and won multiple championships with) was after-all made by the think tank after understanding the pros and cons. As Fernando Alonso said, ‘if you want to beat Mercedes, you have to think and do different’. McLaren and Alonso are going that avenue in order to create a better chance to tackle the Mercedes dominance.

Ferrari has already done that; it has changed its work ethic, team personnel (both at engine and chassis department), its team boss (twice since last year) and other things, in order to get back their glory days. McLaren are also doing the same thing, and bringing in Honda back was sign that the team was willing to take a risk in order to punch right back at Mercedes. Even though, McLaren still could have easily continued with a German manufacturer.

But, there was a pretty good chance if team were still using Mercedes engines (in 2015 and beyond) they would never have challenged the Silver Arrows. That’s because, Mercedes are a works team, and they would never allow their customers to challenge them with their own engines. Ron Dennis also echoed this: “If your objective is to win a World Championship, you have to have a strong OEM (original equipment maker or manufacturer) behind you which has the technology and capability to produce a winning engine – and that’s what Honda has, they’ve proven it many times,”

There is every bit chance that Honda will rectify the issues on hand, and in fact, you can count up on the Japanese company to do so, sooner rather than later. So, McLaren will just have to keep tackling the issues on hand, for the time being.

Patience is virtue for McLaren, and for the sake of their long term health (with Honda power), they have to exercise this caution. Besides, they don’t have any other option than that. The team is still upbeat and we can only hope they can rectify the cumbersome issues, to bring back the dominance of the late 1980s. 

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