Why Honda & McLaren are not working

Honda F1 engineers in Japan, monitoring grand prix live.

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?

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6 responses to “Why Honda & McLaren are not working

  1. Without going into the history – I find it hard to believe Honda didn’t know the problems they had when they went to Barcelona for winter testing this year. The engines were shaking themselves apart after 30 minutes of hard running there. Proper bench testing would have revealed that. And its not like they didn’t have a baseline to work with – they had their 2015 / 2016 to run comparisons against.

    A better question to ask is – does Honda actually have what it takes to design and develop a competitive hybrid F1 engine. No answer right now is no.

  2. >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.

    As I believed I understood it, the problem with the size zero turbo was a fundamental misunderstanding on Honda’s part of energy storage within the new generation of F1 cars. In an old-style turbo, you want the turbo as small as possible because that minimises the time to spin it up and hence minimises turbo lag. And that was what Honda designed for. However in a modern F1 car, the turbo in essence forms the second energy store – harvested energy can be used to accelerate the turbo, effectively storing it for later recovery, and further for recovery not subject to the same limits as the battery storage. So to store enough energy to retain power down the long straights you actually want to maximise turbo inertia, not minimise it. Hence the Honda’s perennial problem with running out of power…

    • The power generated from the MGU-H spins the turbo at low speeds so there is no turbo lag. The MGU-H is what is failing, from surprisingly excessive heat. You also have the vibration issue and excessive fuel consumption. This engine is a long way from being fixed, if it ever is.

  3. Why do people still believe Honda will achieve parity with the Europeans. It’s not like they have ever been in the same ballpark n the last quarter of a century!

    Their engines were groundbreaking in the 80’s (easy when you outspend the opposition.) They had the best two teams providing chassis and these were piloted by the best four drivers in the world at the time. Between them they won 11 titles (drivers).

    In 1991, after Senna returned from his winter break he informed them they hadn’t made enough progress. He took the title but the Williams-Renault was the better, if unreliable package.

    1992, Honda were nowhere and they withdrew.

    Since then, they had spells as Mugen and of course Honda, but at no point was a Honda engine comparable to Renault, Ferrari, BMW or Mercedes. Either in lightness, power or fuel consumption.

    Their abject performance​ of the last three years is just a continuation of what’s gone before

  4. Sounds to me like Honda have been hamstrung by internal budget. Engineering problems are solvable when resources are applied – time, people, money. Honda videos a couple of years ago showed F1engine in a simulator doing full race simulations. There is no question the company understands internal combustion and hybrid technology.

    I’m guessing Mercedes has run a great smokescreen. The publicity around the clever split MGU-H design served to hide the real fact that IC engine advances were more responsible for the power advantage. Mahle’s turbulent jet ignition claims up to 30% improvement in IC efficiency. Suppose Mercedes has used that from the start. Others were hamstrung by the tokens. Ferrari has finally caught up by using Mahle technology.

    Honda appears to have had chronic problems identifying the weakness in their PU. Trying to guess what the problem was and fix it with limited tokens and budget was also hamstrung by the advice. What was the role of Gllles Simon in all of this????

    I suspect Japanese pride, culture and work ethic, given enough resources, will rise to the challenge. We will see….

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