If their performance at Australian Grand Prix is anything to go by, McLaren-Honda’s winter of discontent looks set to add Spring, Summer and Autumn to that mix, but it is not all doom and gloom at Woking.
While Fernando Alonso drove what he felt was one of the drives of his career and was happy to do so in car where he could push, the Spaniard was keen to emphasise the lack of pleasure that his efforts would have resulted in no points.
Such is the drop-off in performance from the Honda power unit and a seemingly uncooperative MCL32 chassis, McLaren looked all at sea, as one clung desperately to the edge of the points and the other battled off a debutante Sauber.
Upon this performance, the once-famed McLaren-Honda partnership looks set to repeat the dismal efforts of 2015. This must surely hurt even more considering the step forward made in 2016 and the lavish pre-season promises delivered from all corners of the project.
Alonso would eventually retire in the latter stages with brake duct issues and a damaged floor, while new teammate Stoffel Vandoorne ended the day 13th and last after putting up his own brave fight, following an early dashboard failure that resulted in an early long pitstop.
But it is not good enough and the team from Woking know it, as Eric Boullier – Racing Director at McLaren – describes. “The 2017 Australian Grand Prix won’t be remembered as one of McLaren-Honda’s finest hours, and indeed there are precious few reasons for us to be cheerful here in Melbourne this evening.”
Yet for all this, there is little point in rehashing the current failings of the project, as so many seem to want to do – that does little to move the project forward. The question that McLaren and Honda have been asking themselves for many weeks already is: “what next?”
Well, some minor improvements have already been made. Prior to the start of the season, there were questions as to whether the McLaren would be able to string more than a dozen laps in a row during the Grand Prix; however both comfortably surpassed this marker and were close to achieving a double-finish when Alonso pulled off.
Boullier, however, knows there is much more to do: “From here we’ll return to Woking and Sakura, where our development work will continue with relentless intensity, with regard to chassis and power unit alike, in an effort to improve MCL32 for the Shanghai-Bahrain double-header.”
Whether either driver was able to push the power unit as hard as they would have ideally liked is unknown. In a sense, one would hope no, as their pace was relatively weak compared to even some of the midfield squads. Should the pace shown in Melbourne be genuine, then McLaren-Honda are in real trouble, but if there is still a need to reign the drivers in, in order to secure a reliable run – even slightly – then a window of improvement becomes viable.
Over at Honda, Yusuke Hasegawa, Executive Engineer and Head of the Honda F1 Project, was somewhat upbeat considering the circumstances. “We knew coming into the weekend that this race wouldn’t be an easy one. But, despite a number of issues, I’m still happy with the progress we’ve made over the last weeks.” Hasegawa complimented his drivers for their efforts in what he described as “a challenging season-opening race, with retirements up and down the grid.”
And therein Hasegawa’s final comment could be the rung that measures McLaren’s season. Melbourne was this year (and generally is) a race of a high number of retirements.
The thirteen competitors who finally crossed the line on Sunday represented a very low threshold for finishers and, it is not unreasonable to assume that in a “regular” Grand Prix, the McLaren duo may struggle to pull their way as far up the order and as incredible a performer as Alonso is, the Spaniard’s patience is not endless.
All the same, do not underestimate McLaren-Honda. The removal of the token system will aid Honda in their development of the power unit and as the season progresses and updates arrive, it will be interesting to see if it can deliver enough to allow drivers to push full tilt, thereby pulling the team back into the midfield.
So many ifs, too many buts.