First sign of cracks in the McLaren-Honda relationship

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Just less than two years ago, Ron Dennis had aspirations to match Red Bull Racing who were then the dominant winning machine in Formula One.

Aside from neither having a ‘dominant winning machine’, McLaren and Red Bull at present have a lot in common. Both have problems with the engines their manufacturing partners are supplying, and now it appears McLaren’s frustration too is at a tipping point.

Thus far this year, Dennis and Boullier have remained positive in the face of what by Woking’s standards have been humiliating results. The talk has consistently been of ‘closing the gap’

CEO Jonathan Neale was wheeled out yesterday to face the music and he too resorted to the PR ‘Plan A’ when he insisted: “We have closed a gap of around 2.5 seconds, we’ve got two seconds to go, that is a huge way, but we knew it was going to be a difficult weekend with a circuit like this. But watch us over the next few races, ask us in two or three races time, I think there is a lot to come.”

Honda have seven development tokens left to change architectural aspects of their engine, though Neale reveals that is almost meaningless. “We have enough reliability issues to fix there that we can do without the tokens… I don’t think tokens is the issue at all, we just need time.”

Much of the talk post the race in Monaco was of Fernando Alonso’s apparent outburst on the radio, where he practically accused the team of being ‘amateur’.

However, the mask of Eric Boullier also slipped during the media rounds in the Montreal paddock. The Frenchman revealed the relationship between McLaren and Honda may not be all Woking would have had us believe.

“We [McLaren] keep talking about issues, and obviously we hope to be listened to more [by Honda].”

Eric quickly added, “They [Honda] do listen. We have discussions every day. I don’t want to go into anything in public”.

McLaren have gone to great lengths not to repeat the very public spat between Red Bull Racing and Renault Sport F1 and Boullier stresses this point: “Of course, it is easy to blame the partner, but as a partner we also have to be supportive. We need to help them to accelerate this recovery time.

“To be fair, they decided to join Formula 1 two years ago and it is not easy to be here and win. We just need to make sure we are properly equipped to do it.”

It is no great leap of speculation based on Boullier’s comments to suggest McLaren want Honda to put more effort into their programme. Eric continues, “There is some way to improve faster and we should go that path. In terms of timing, when you want to catch up you basically have to put more resources on the programme”.

Honda have been out of Formula One since the end of 2008 and the feeling in Woking is their lack of experience is telling. Boullier reasons, “If you want to do it short-term you need to bring more experienced resources”.

Resources McLaren clearly believe they have to offer.

“We have some software, IT, whatever it is, we have this experience at home, so McLaren can actually offer Honda support in this domain to help them shift resources.”

McLaren had to find an ‘independent’ engine supplier once Mercedes bought Brawn as their own ‘works’ team. However, the anguish Ron Dennis must be feeling at present, could masquerade as the kind of pain that could lead him to believe he is in need of a triple heart bypass.

21 responses to “First sign of cracks in the McLaren-Honda relationship

  1. Honda’s struggles in coming to terms with the current F1 engine regs are no surprise. I heard from Mclaren employees 12 months ago that they were having issues. ( I believe I commented here at the time)

    It has surprised me that given this knowledge Mclaren signed Alonso and didn’t do more pre-season to temper expectations. I’m confident that the Mclaren Honda partnership will lead to greatness, but the team could have done a better job in making it clear it wasn’t going to happen until year 2-3 of the partnership. Sponsors seem to know….

  2. Eric Boullier dit: “We have some software, IT, whatever it is, we have this experience at home, so McLaren can actually offer Honda support in this domain to help them shift resources.”

    Ah, a clue to part of the problem with Honda. Race engine designers are not electronics and computer specialists, and computer/electronics people are not internal combustion engine specialists. I am pretty certain that the majority of people who are heaping derision on the efforts of Honda, have no clue about the complexity of these power units.

    • “We have some software, IT, whatever it is, we have this experience at home…”
      As a developer of real-time firmware,this statement is HI-larious!

      • @Bill McKidd

        Why is it hilarious, coming from the mouth of a person who doesn’t claim to be an electronics engineer?

        • It shows it comes from the mouth of someone who has no idea what he is talking about… I’m in the process of trying to learn to write apps on the Android platform, coming from an 8-bit embedded firmware background.

          It’s like trying to learn to speak Mandarin with only a Spanish dictionary for reference. The two disciplines are so different that any embedded coding skills do not transfer well to writing for an OS and vice-versa.

          They may have some whizz kids who can code great simulators and the like but ask them to code engine management software and you’ll end up in a bigger mess than you started with.

          What McLaren do have is McLaren Electronics who produce the ECU. I’m not so sure whether they’d be able to use their resources to improve their PU and still keep on the right side of the FIA and the teams in terms of keeping the contract to supply said ECU…

  3. I supported the decision that McLaren made at the time (no that it matters) and I still stand by it. You need to be a works team to win the title. The only criticism could be, should have Honda come back a year early? Isn’t that too early? And then any other criticisms are out of bounds. We have no idea how they work together. But of course it was always a risk partnering with an engine manufacturer from a country that are traditionally conservative and not moving too fast with development. Maybe Audi would have been a better fit, but of course they have aspirations for their own team.

  4. Reminds me of Race Car Engineering’s Sam Collins 6 months ago mentioning the fact that Honda insisted they went to with their own Hybrid system as apposed to using McLaren’s proven system from the Mercedes days. Honda’s self imposed isolation way over there in the East might not be great for McLaren in these early stages of development. That being said, they were pretty dire in the 80’s until year later on

  5. That Honda has had such huge issues in their first season as a returning engine supplier is a bit of a surprise to me, if I’m honest. While they were entirely free to develop their engine in 2014, they also had a lot of publicly available data from the F1 season that was underway at the time and that’s not even counting the first-hand experience of their racing team partner McLaren who had one year with the leading Mercedes drive-train.

    Sure, teething problems were to be expected and nobody could really see them win much in their first year, but we’re now seven races into the season and apparently Honda can’t compete on performance, reliability AND fuel consumption. That’s a hard pill to swallow.

    I wish them the best of luck for the future of course, because I’d love to see McLaren back on top again, but the second half of the deficit is always way more difficult to make up so I won’t hold my breath for the this and the next year.

    • Dan, Agreed, I was not expecting Mclaren to be doing this poorly.
      I will fess up and admit it, I openly wrote several times that I thought Honda would have a relatively competitive PU within the first few races.

      I was wrong.

      I can only assume that Honda did not take advantage of their situation correctly.
      By that I mean, for the entire 2014 season they were able to watch everyone else’s mistakes, while at the same time having unlimited testing and unrestricted development.
      If it were me, I would have strapped that PU into a GP2 car and run it at every track in the world 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. I would even have invited the press to take pictures.
      I do not want to stereotype, but maybe that’s the ‘murican attitude I group up around verses the much more conservative Japanese business stoic-ness.

      Unfortunately Honda are now in a real jam. They know the rules are prone to be screwed with at any time, and they have zero voice in any of the decision making. They now fall under the testing restrictions of being an active team, and they only have 2 cars with which to gather data. They have in fact collected 1/5 as much engine data as Mercedes over the course of this year.
      ~8000km versus ~42,000 Km.
      I see only one way for Honda to make real progress, run more Engines.
      Since no one in going to buy their current engine, that leaves only two options.

      The first option is to cut and run. I will not speculate as to its likelihood at this point.
      The other option is to buy a team.

      • Tour dog. Did I not tell you it was going to be a disaster this year? 😕

      • Buy a team, Tourdog? That would make McLaren once again customer to the works team of another engine supplier and I doubt they’ll be happy with that. Having said that, I just can’t see them doing that, because it would be the opposite of what Honda wanted to do with their return to the sport.

        • “That would make McLaren once again customer to the works team of another engine supplier and I doubt they’ll be happy with that.”

          You got that right. Mclaren would not be happy if they became a “customer”.
          But Honda’s options are running low. Unless Mclaren can supply Honda with at least 2 more cars to collect data from, Honda will have to do it themselves.

          Maybe Mclaren should have bought another team like Caterham, when they had the chance?

          And BTW, Mclaren is capable of building their own, completely bespoke, F1 engine if they wanted to.
          They already build their own road car engines, F1 ERS systems, and all the computer and sensor hardware that ALL F1 the teams use.

          They don’t need Honda, they just need Hondas money.

  6. This must be taking longer than McLaren and/or Honda expected – otherwise why pay Alonso tens of millions to drive around in the back of the pack?

  7. Mercedes and now Ferrari are demonstrating the advantage of having engine and chassis groups talking to one another. It’s now becoming fairly clear that other teams simply taking an engine – even a dominant one – will not make a car as competitive as it could be. Yet for some reason Honda are silo’ed from Mclaren in their development of the power unit.

  8. What happened last year to the customer engines between races? Did Mercedes keep them in their storage and bring them to the next race or did McL and other customers get to keep the engine in their possession? If so, why would something like ultrasound and measurements not reveal all the secrets of the internals? And certainly Honda must have been aware of the split turbo concept and performance targets. I’m baffled how they dropped the ball so badly.

    • It was reported that McLaren only took delivery of the Mercedes power unit on the Thursday of the race weekend and the installation was supervised by their own technicians.

    • They were aware of the split turbo concept as that is why they have employed one on their engine…….

      The issue is that simply copying Mercedes does not lead to a world beating engine. Honda have a very radical concept and having issues in this age of no testing is not a good position but it will get fixed.

      • I think Honda would have been better not coming in until 2016 to be honest. It seemed as if they only just got their facilities built, people hired and first unit built in time to go testing. Mercedes seemed to have a lot more of a run-up and time to get it right. Renault and to a degree Ferrari were in the same position last year as Honda are this – only just ready in time – and we all saw what they were like at the start of the season.

        What will be worrying is if Honda are just as bad next year…

  9. I am reminded of Honda’s disastrous results back when they teamed up with Rahal in CART. I can’t recall how many seasons Rahal stayed with them, but when he did drop them, the following season, Honda was the engine to have.

  10. I read somewhere that someone said that Alonso’s value has fallen, as he is doing so bad but then Briatore said it was BS. We all know Alonso is a top driver but do you think that in fact, his value has fallen a little bit? In 2 years time, would you rather sign Alonso or one of the promising rookies? Alonso’s time is fading fast….

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