At what point does McLaren’s problematic start to its reunion with Honda turn in to a proper crisis?
Everyone expected McLaren to struggle at the start of the 2015 campaign but its performance in Canada – even accounting for the characteristics of the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve – was woeful. Whereas Mercedes nailed the V6 power units and even the much-maligned Renault gathered a win in its seventh race last year, the McLaren-Honda reunion has so far delivered just four points, gained at theoretically one of its strongest circuits.
Of course, there are other circumstances to consider. While a lot of people turn misty-eyed when contemplating the McLaren-Honda partnership, McLaren has not delivered a strong chassis since 2012 and has not won the Constructors’ championship since 1998. This is a team which has been consistently second or third best this century but across the last two years has slipped to fifth.
Honda, meanwhile, has been out of Formula 1 since 2008, when it possessed far from the strongest engine. Add in a new design philosophy from McLaren’s side, the obvious difficulties of communication between English and Japanese cultures (including the language barrier) and the understated strength of rival teams (who have developed enormously since the start of 2014) and it’s easy to see why problems persist. Yet there has been an awful lot of money thrown at the project for, so far, widespread embarrassment. Pride often comes before a fall and McLaren’s assertions pre-season of success have come back to bite, even if the long-term nature of the project was repeatedly emphasised - especially once the car made its public debut!
But for how much longer does this persist?
Figures inside McLaren and Honda have repeatedly suggested that they will be able to be competitive from the mid-season period – which surely means the European stint which stretches from the upcoming race in Austria to September’s Italian Grand Prix (which, incidentally, the team must fear if it cannot improve its straight line speed). Results will have to follow. Points must become the norm, rather than the goal – and from thereon steady progression towards the podium. Because if they don’t, then there will be twitchy feet in board rooms both at McLaren and Honda. Such struggles, too, may put off any manufacturer contemplating making an entry into Formula 1.
And what of the drivers? Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button must be wondering whether 2015 will be a complete write-off and if indeed 2016 will be the promised light at the end of the tunnel. Alonso cuts a positive figure but frustration bore out at times in Canada while Button has occasionally adopted gallows humour while batting away questions about the future.
McLaren and Honda has everything in its favour to be a success in the long-term: it has the financial power, the human resources and years of knowledge on its side. Formula 1 will be all the more greater if McLaren and Honda can become a competitive force, but it needs to take a step up soon if it is to avoid 2015 becoming an embarrassment. If it does, then the nascent part of this campaign will simply be remembered as a difficult learning curve rather than an endless struggle.