Much has been written about the McLaren-Honda problems. Most people tend to blame Honda for not living up to the expectation. I tend to agree with them, but are they the only party to blame?
Yesterday I wrote that some people thought it a stroke of genius for Honda to come into the V6 game a year late. The empirical evidence for that was myself: I truly believed Honda would watch what the rest was doing, and start by copying the stuff that seemed to work best.
Instead they decided to follow the size zero concept. If one estimates that other engine supplier’s performance could be repeated, “size zero” would have been a good strategy: it creates room for the chassis manufacturer to make aerodynamic gains over competitors. It could even be considered an aggressive design strategy.
However, this strategy came with too many disadvantages. The smaller turbo coming with “size zero” was not able to create the boost levels needed to efficiently burn the petrol used, thus the electrical motor generator attached to the turbo could not create enough power.
While many believed that “size zero” was forced upon Honda, McLaren’s Eric Boullier stated in the beginning of 2016 that McLaren “never ever imposed anything on Honda”.
Boullier explained “I think there is a big misunderstanding with this size zero concept, which I am going to try to kill now. There is no overheating issues, never have been. Second, the size-zero concept is to give the aerodynamicists as much space as possible to create and invent downforce.”
Engine rules however, made it hard to make changes. Once the engine package was raced, Honda (and therefore McLaren) was stuck with the package for not only 2015, but also for the 2016 season. The “size zero” faux pas ruined 2 seasons.
Where confusion might have come from, is that “size zero” definitely is a McLaren idea. Boullier stated “We have never ever imposed anything on Honda, they do what they want. If they come with an engine like this [big] then we have to accommodate this in our size zero, which would not be a size zero any more.
“There is absolutely no constraint and if we keep this concept because we are happy with it and we believe in the concept, it will help us catch up quicker faster than any others.”
Yusuke Hasegawa, confirmed Boullier comments later: “We were never pushed by McLaren to squeeze the engine in a particular room. But last year we had issues with cooling, but that is lack of our experience and we didn’t understand which size was necessary for the cooling. For this year [ed. 2016] we made modifications.”
2016 ended slightly better, but McLaren was still at the back of the pack..
2017 saw the abolishing of the engine development constraints as the whole token system was scrapped. Honda seems to have given up on the idea it can beat Mercedes and Ferrari based on Honda’s different design principles, and basically runs the same engine setup as its competitors.
Already early during the 2016 season Honda started developing their 2017 unit. At the end of the season more and more resources were taken from the “2016 team” to work on the 2017 engine.
In the current season the Honda engine seems to have not gained nor lost places in the field. Unluckily for McLaren, that means they largely are still stuck in Q3. This doesn’t mean Honda didn’t advance, but more that the other suppliers made enormous gains too. Current V6’s are developing more power than the old V8’s, and are using less fuel: especially the latter is a huge achievement. Thermal efficiency (Mercedes is running leaner mixtures, and has been experimenting with compression ignition for years) is advancing at a steady pace, and Honda seems to be late into the game: the one year gap tactic might be backfiring.
It is also known that Mercedes began experimenting as far back as 2007 for this hybrid ERS engine formula using single cylinder setups.
Renault’s first attempt to make a V6 weren’t too successful either. Remember the Red Bull-Renault squabble? However, they seem are closing the gap.
There is a large philosophy difference between Honda and Renault. Honda wants to do everything their way, with Honda personnel leading the way. Forced or not, Renault accepted assistance from Ilmor. Renault has taken on talent from other F1 teams, while Honda has done less of this.
Indeed, it’s Honda’s philosophy to have a steady stream of engineers who enter their motorsport programs only for a relatively short period before moving onto the regular automotive sector. A means of training and taking knowledge gained and applying it to their cars.
Another large difference is the amount of experience, and the number of teams supplied. McLaren may be to blame for the latter as the previous boss of McLaren, Ron Dennis, wanted exclusivity with Honda.
Experience is one of the reasons Honda engineers haven’t tested enough: given the freedom of the 2017 regulations, they simply don’t know when to quit. Take more time to design, less time to test? Develop 5 engines to test each for 1000 hours, or develop 10 engines to test each for 500 hours? They seem to have opted for the latter since they engines are currently breaking records in breaking down, and they are vibrating themselves to bits. What is not encouraging is that before they break down, they don’t seem to be developing enough power to find a place up front.
What seems clear it that there are no shortcuts for Honda. Engine development might be unlimited, but the number of engines they can use this year is not. It might be easier for McLaren to try to buy Mercedes engines. However, I still want to see Honda succeed if only for their stubborn “we can do this on our own” attitude. Question is, will it be with McLaren?