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It was supposed to be a reteaming that would usher in a return to dominance. McLaren with Honda engines; a throwback to their glory days together from the late 1980s to early 90s. A partnership that saw a combined eight driver’s and constructor’s world championships.
Yet, now in it’s third season with Honda after ending its deal with Mercedes, McLaren continues to lag behind the majority of the field. Winning races, let alone titles, was not expected in the immediacy. But no one would’ve expected such minimal, perhaps even non-existent, progress.
Pre-season testing in Barcelona this February and March has proved a sobering experience for the Woking-based team. Hopes that new rule changes for the 2017 season offered a chance for a better showing on the track were crushed faster than, well, pretty much any Formula One car that wasn’t a McLaren.
The team were nearly three seconds, a lifetime in F1, off the pace. Fingers pointed yet again at Honda, with tempers nearly as hot as the supplier’s overheated engines.
Fernando Alonso, coaxed back to McLaren with the promise of more world titles, bemoaned the car for having “no reliability and no power”, before adding “I think we are 30km/h down on every straight”. Stark contrast to Ron Dennis, CEO of the McLaren Group at the time of the reteaming, who described Honda’s engines as “mind-blowing… the competitiveness of the engine is without question”.
It is the manner of the problems though that are surely providing rage-inducing frustration for McLaren. This pre-season, vibrations from the Honda engine are causing the power unit to effectively shake itself into breaking down.
It has caused 2017’s car, the McLaren-Honda MCL32, to break down on four different occasions over the final two days of testing at Barcelona. Chances of a quick fix look remote. It means the team completed the fewest number of laps of any other constructor. Intermittent electrical issues are allegedly to blame, but the source of the problem is really believed to be the engine vibrations.
Either way, Honda admitted they were struggling to identify the cause of the breakdowns. This disruption to the two weeks forced McLaren to make more engine changes than will be allowed over an entire season. The need also to run the Honda unit on reduced power has dented team’s chassis analysis.
Put it this way, the signs aren’t good. The only thing that looks healthy is the orange lick of paint on McLaren’s car. Alonso has attempted to be upbeat, saying he is “enjoying” driving the faster 2017 cars. But the cause for his concern is clear: “We have only one problem: that is the power unit,” said the two-time world champion.
Formula One’s pre-season can only tell us so much. The next 20 races between 26 March and 26 December will do that. But for a remarriage that was meant to offer so much, will McLaren and Honda have to call it quits again? Whether that’ll be by consciously uncoupling or with an ugly divorce, we’ll have to see.