Fans who were so eagerly anticipating the renewed McLaren/Honda love affair should have been aware as to how tricky things might be at the start, but few in their wildest nightmares would have predicted yesterday’s horror show.
The veteran Jenson Button ended the day 11th and last and two laps adrift of the victorious Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes), while substitute teammate Kevin Magnussen never even made the start.
In dreams, it was never supposed to be like this.
Magnussen’s premature end was signalled by a smouldering rear on the dummy run to the grid. With Fernando Alonso returning to that seat for the next race in Malaysia, the Dane’s opportunity to impress came to naught.
Qualifying exposed the shocking lack of pace in the new Honda power unit and MP4-30 chassis, as the silver machines were well over three seconds off the paced in Q1 – and that was before Mercedes really turned up the pace.
Yet despite all the negatives – and there are plenty – the Woking-based team are trying to at least focus on the positives. For a start, Button actually finished! Testing had been such torrid time for the McLaren-Honda combination, with the team only once breaking the century-lap marker over the course of a day, while many of their other attempts to pull consistent runs together were hampered by failures of some sort.
As the dejected Magnussen told the media post-race, “We can take positives from Jenson finishing the race, too – we came here to learn, and that’s what we did. Finishing is a small victory for the team – I don’t think we expected to be able to do that.” While the young Dane acknowledged that good result, it cannot be ignored that Honda needed to turn their engine down just to get this far.
Having reached the end, Button was a little more upbeat, as he found good markers. “Today […] really helps in terms of development: if we’d done three laps, we’d have learned nothing, so we’ve learned a massive amount by completing a race distance,” said the 2009 world champion.
The 34-year-old added, “It was also a good opportunity for me to get used to the car and to play around with it, making adjustments in the cockpit. There’s a lot of work still needed – on power, driveability, downforce and set-up – but we can make big strides. And, by improving one area, it tends to snowball; more and more areas start to improve, too.”
McLaren’s Racing Director, Eric Boullier agreed. “We’re pleased that Jenson’s car was able to finish the race. He drove extremely well, keeping Checo [Sergio Perez, Force India] behind him very adroitly for many laps, and garnering us a great deal of useful data in completing 56 laps.”
Boullier, however, was also keen to press home that much is still to be done on the performance side as well. “[Button] was lapped not once but twice by the race winner […] and we know we have a mountain to climb as far as performance is concerned. Nonetheless, our corner speeds were pretty decent, and there’s definitely untapped potential in MP4-30 that both Honda and ourselves can unlock.”
“The fact that Jenson was able to finish the race was a significant step forward for the whole team,” added Yasuhisa Arai – the senior managing director of Honda R&D – a man under no illusions of McLaren-Honda’s place in the pecking order. “[Yesterday’s] performance clearly displays the task that lies ahead of us to reach our objectives of achieving full competitiveness.”
Button’s battle with former teammate Perez provided some entertainment, with the Mexican attempting at one point to bash his rival out of the way at the 90º turn three early on, although it could be argued that Perez was not quite performing at his best. Despite this, Button continued, “We’re as quick as the Force India’s in the corners,” he said, before noting, “We look similar in speed through the corners to the Red Bull’s and Sauber’s, too.”
The heat of Melbourne has now been cast aside, but the next race in Sepang could prove even more difficult for what is already a difficult situation. Surmising, Button commented, “It’s been a tough winter – our longest run in testing was just 12 laps, so today’s 58-lap run was a good step forward – but we know we’ve got a lot of work to do. But, with all of today’s learning, there are many areas we can improve for the next race.”
It was a point driven home too by Arai. “We now turn our attention to Malaysia – racing in such a hot and humid environment will not be easy, and our main objectives will be to tackle heat-mapping and taking a step forward with a more competitive data setting.”
Even still, McLaren-Honda may be waiting a long time before they can catch the top half of the field, let alone challenge the front.