The days in Formula One are long gone when a Colin Chapman designed budget Lotus 25 could be rolled out of the garage and be immediately competitive at the front of the field. Renault are a living testimony to this, and despite their pedigree as one of the greatest F1 engine manufacturers in history, the French company has demonstrated how difficult it can be to get up to speed having fallen off the pace.
Yasuhisa Arai, head of motor sports at Honda, admits his company’s 7 year absence from Formula One was underestimated and that Honda was suffering from what athletes call a “lack of match sharpness.”
McLaren fans may think this is the understatement of the year, and Arai accepts there were a number of mistakes made by Honda though defends returning to Formula One with half the engineering team “new to the field.” Arai admits to ‘Nikkei Asian Review’ that McLaren questioned him about Honda’s approach and “also asked us to use outside personnel, which from their perspective is natural given the high job mobility in Europe. But we explained that Honda has a different philosophy. It’s important to nurture manpower. It isn’t acceptable to us to have an outside engineer stay for just three months or half a year”.
The writing appeared to be on the wall for the Japanese company back at their first test in Abu Dhabi immediately after the 2014 season. Across the two days the McLaren Honda completed just 5 laps as it became clear there were design problems with the Control Electronics (CE) – one of the 6 components of the modern Formula One power unit. The CE flaws were mostly ironed out prior to the subsequent winter testing in Jerez, but Honda were then hit with a whole new set of problems to tackle.
Temperatures inside the PU soared to 1000 degrees Celsius at times and Arai reveals the test in Jerez and the two which followed in Barcelona were in fact “useless”. In fact Honda were in complete disarray until the end of the opening flyaway races. “Up until the Spanish Grand Prix in May, it was like playing whack-a-mole: As soon as we resolved one problem, another popped up,” Arai observes.
Much has been made of the fact that Honda were forced to deal with McLaren’s ‘size zero’ chassis and aerodynamic design philosophy, yet this was no imposition. In fact, Honda independently had a ‘size zero’ concept at the heart of their power unit design.
By the time summer came, Honda were on top of the myriad of peripheral difficulties and had realised their power unit’s chief weakness was the MGU-H element. The MGU-H is the recovery unit which collects heat from the exhaust gases and transforms it into energy to drive the turbocharger. The problem was that Honda’s ‘size zero’ design meant the compressor and the turbine were too small and were unable to recover the energy other F1 hybrid PU designs were delivering.
For 2016 Honda has reengineered both components to be more powerful whilst not compromising the McLaren chassis design one jot. “We had had to make the effort to design it inside the V-angle, but it was a little bit too small,” explains Arai. “So we have changed the compressor and turbine for 2016. They will be a little bit bigger – but will still be inside the V-bank – with almost the same packaging.”
Honda believes they are on a par with Mercedes and Ferrari in terms of power coming from the internal combustion engine, so if the new MGU-H delivers what it should, then Fernando Alonso won’t be comparing his Honda power unit to a GP2 engine any more.
Yasuhisa Arai has been candid about the mistakes Honda made and has even suggested that there may have been some complacency in the approach adopted when they began their return to F1. Clearly, the budget and amount of personnel resources deployed has been a hot topic of conversation back in Sakura and Arai confirms, “We have been considering the budget and team size since last summer. I’ve talked with [Honda] President Takahiro Hachigo and received his pledge for full support; we are ready for the 2016 season”.
With the first winter test scheduled in Barcelona just three weeks away, McLaren Honda fans can be content that their team is starting the year on a much better footing than it did last year, which saw Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso complete just 79 laps over the four days in Jerez.