One can only wonder at the thoughts running through the head of Fernando Alonso as he prepares for yet another handicapped season with the McLaren-Honda package.
The two-time World Champion, who took the last of his 32 Grand Prix victories in Spain almost four years ago, has spent the last two seasons trundling around in an underpowered McLaren, scrapping away for minor points at best. Meanwhile, despite much-publicised errors last year, Ferrari – the team Alonso left as he had lost faith in their ability to win him a third title – have improved immeasurably from their woefully uncompetitive 2014. They even look like they could be hot on the heels of the all-conquering Mercedes team if testing is anything to go by.
Honda had promised to be level with Mercedes after three years but, despite redesigning their engine over the winter, they have nowhere near the amount of power Merc have at their disposal. Even if they did, the reliability has been so poor that Alonso and teammate Stoffel Vandoorne brought out the red flag four times (twice each) in the last two days of testing alone. They didn’t once complete a Grand Prix distance inside a day, with their best effort being 55. Mercedes completed 1,096 laps in testing, Ferrari, whose last World Drivers’ Championship came in 2007 with Kimi Raikkonen, completed almost 1,000 themselves.
Well, they completed 475 laps across eight days. That is well over 600 laps down on Mercedes. Their ultimate pace has only been faster than the struggling Sauber team, although McLaren’s 1:21.3 was set on the faster ultrasoft tyre whereas Sauber’s best effort, three tenths slower, was on supersofts.
Honda expect to introduce a newer-spec engine for the Australian Grand Prix but before testing it was hoped they’d introduce that in the second test. Instead of being at least a certainty for points, as Alonso hoped he would be doing after all the noises made by team and engine supplier in the autumn of last year, he’ll spend the Australian Grand Prix sorting out more issues.
Even if they sort out those issues over that weekend, they have a lot of power to make up regardless of what mapping they use at Albert Park. McLaren were between 25-30kph (15-18mph) slower than Mercedes down the straights in Barcelona. The most frustrating thing about that detail for driver, team and fans are that until that deficit is significantly reduced, we will not know how good McLaren’s chassis is.
Alonso seems to rate it, and was frank in his assessment of McLaren’s problem. When speaking to Spanish media during the second test, he accused Honda of “not being ready to win,”, having previously taken to team radio during his second stint at McLaren to lambast the lack of grunt underneath his right foot. No-one will forget the “GP2 engine” or the “amateurs” outbursts anytime soon.
Those words will be ringing in the ears of McLaren, who are acutely aware of the damage to their reputation that Honda’s stagnation is continuing to inflict. However, they cannot just simply make a change, even if Team Principle Eric Boullier says that the engine problems are “putting maximum strain” on their relationship.
Honda contribute a net $100m to the team and with few title sponsors, McLaren simply cannot afford to lose that and buy another customer engine. There are also still seven years left on the ten-year contract agreed in late 2013, when Ron Dennis was adamant that it was the only way McLaren to return to the winners’ circle following a poor 2013.
Three years into the reunion of the glory partnership that swept all before them in the late 1980s, it looks as if his crystal ball was murky at best. While Honda gave themselves little over a year to prepare the most complex engine ever seen in Formula One, the benchmark supplier Mercedes were working on this technology back in 2010.
Honda are proof in that the harsh world of F1 has no sympathy for those who overpromise and underdeliver. By underestimating the mammoth task ahead when they re-entered the sport, they’ve chased their tails in the past two years and in the third are now back where they started. Three years behind, and little sign of bridging a gap the size of the Grand Canyon.
It is barely possible to imagine Alonso’s anger should Ferrari, the team he felt couldn’t give him a title, live up to their winter promise and bring an end to the Mercedes supremacy.
Jack Prentice @JPrentice8