On the Saturday evening of every Grand Prix weekend McLaren holds a ‘meet the team’ event. Racing Director Eric Boullier and the two drivers take questions from journalists in an open forum, and this year they’ve been joined by Honda motorsport chief Yasuhisa Arai.
But in Montreal three of them might as well not have been there. It was originally said by one of the questioners, and repeated by Arai at the conclusion (though apparently without bitterness), that it had become in effect a Honda press conference. Virtually all of the questions were directed at Arai, none of them rude but all of them searching and plenty of them uncomfortable. Most pointedly of how long the Honda board would continue to throw money at the F1 programme with the current apparent snail’s pace progress, particularly with a new CEO coming in. Meanwhile the two drivers sat with heads bowed, giving the impression they’d rather be anywhere else.
Honda’s Hopes Hit
This was but a day after Arai spoke of his “very good feeling” about the upgraded Honda unit brought to Canada. But it hardly could have been worse timed as both McLaren drivers had commented to the media the day before that there wasn’t likely to be much, if any, gain in performance, only in reliability. And the day after, on Saturday, even that didn’t appear true as both McLarens needed a unit change, which in Jenson Button’s case meant sitting qualifying out. Come the race things sank yet deeper with the Honda’s lack of power as well as this time its fuel-thirstiness pitilessly exposed. Much to the audible frustration of both drivers.
Arai throughout the press conference played a straight bat, maintaining that nothing changes in Honda’s commitment and ambition. But he also repeated the mantra that “come the second half of the season we can achieve good competition with the top level teams”.
Keeping a positive outlook is one thing but this is beginning to sound like delusion. It also doesn’t effectively manage expectations as well as opens yourself up to ridicule.
And short of transformations it is genuinely difficult to identify where this pick-up is coming from. We have now completed seven rounds of 19 this campaign so the “second half” isn’t far off and the European season that stretches ahead is, Hungary aside, monopolised by power tracks. Not until Singapore in late September is there an obvious salvation, but like Canada that one’s tough on fuel. Then we have Honda’s home round in Suzuka, where you suspect it simply must get it right.
What must compound the frustration for all at Woking is that some murmurs suggest its chassis is somewhere in the ballpark of Ferrari’s, which if true means that with a power unit on a level with Mercedes or Ferrari, McLaren would be in the mix for podiums. In Fernando Alonso it has a driver capable of winning out in such battles too.
But equally, team and engine supplier appear stuck with each other. McLaren will recall why it threw its lot in with Honda in the first place, given not being the works team appears to mean second best service. In an odd back-to-front sense Honda’s struggle helps the commitment too, given it demonstrates how difficult it is for new manufacturers in this formula, which presumably will deter new entrant suppliers for now. And even in Honda’s case it had around 18 months of preparation time before its track debut (albeit this was around half of what the three existing suppliers had). For two McLaren’s key figures of Ron Dennis and Alonso similarly it is this or quits. Plus no one said this was a one-season job. All of the pieces are there for McLaren-Honda success, the chief discriminant now is that all of them stick it out.
Images: Honda News