Analysis: How big is the McLaren-Honda crisis?

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While McLaren and Honda did their best to try to downplay their pre-season Formula 1 testing woes, the situation appears to have gone beyond the debate about whether or not it is a crisis.

Instead, it’s really about how big the crisis actually is.

After all, Honda used more engines in two tests than is allowed for the whole season and it was running with less power than it had in 2016, which meant its drivers often suffered a speed deficit in excess of 20km/h on the straights.

Furthermore, it could manage a longest stint of just 11 laps and it lost hours of track time which limited its understanding of the chassis. Plus it was on the receiving end of some outspoken remarks from its star driver.

As one team source put it when asked to sum up on just how bad things were: worse than your worst possible nightmare.

To put the situation into a bit of F1 context: based on Honda’s performance and reliability over the Barcelona fortnight, had the team taken that package to the Australian Grand Prix then the outcome was pretty easy to predict.

Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne would have qualified on the back row. They would not get far into the race before retiring – and perhaps even more alarmingly they would have used up two engines by that point.

Crisis? It's much worse than that.

What's gone wrong?

There had been murmurs over the winter that Honda had perhaps not made the gains it had wanted with its all-new engine, as it abandoned the much vaunted 'size zero' concept for the Mercedes-style solution.

But at the car launch, there seemed to be talk of mild optimism, as its F1 engine chief Yusuke Hasegawa said the ambition was to be on par with the 2016 Mercedes by the start of the season.

Of course, with Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault all revising their engines for this year, the top target had moved. But even so, a decent jump in form, allied to the gains McLaren was convinced it had made with its chassis, would surely finally allow the team the sniff of the podiums it had long desired.

But almost immediately things fell flat. The first issues came to light at the McLaren filming day on the eve of the first pre-season test – with some glitches flashing up but not being acted upon until the following morning.

By then it was too late really, and within minutes of the green flag on the first morning of the test, the car was already stuck in the garage with an oil issue problem caused by a new tank design.

Worse was to come as a never-explained failure on day two prompted the need for another engine change. And things never really appeared to get better from there.

Changes – including a Spec 2 engine – did not appear to address problems as a spate of electrical issues kept limiting running. It was suggested that the failures were being caused by excessive vibration, which was shaking connections to bits.

By the end of the second test Honda was on to engine number five, which is one more than it has to make last for the entire season.

But while some reliability problems on an engine that has delivered a big horsepower step would not be grounds for too much pessimism, even on the power front things looked depressing for the drivers.

There were suggestions that in the configuration it was running at Barcelona, the Honda was 45-50hp down on the engine it had run in Abu Dhabi.

Neither McLaren nor Honda would confirm those numbers, but Fernando Alonso did suggest that was the case, albeit only because the engine was wound down for reliability reasons.

"Right now, yeah, we may have less power than last year, but the settings we've run so far are nowhere close to what we'd run in the race for different reasons and different problems the engine has," said the Spaniard.

"So the power we will not see it until they solve many of the problems we have."

What's next?

Alonso has been clear that the priority for now is reliability. And while Honda itself has maintained its belief that it can cure the matters before Australia, delivering on that is not going to be easy.

And this year there is not scope to get it wrong, as teams cannot afford early failure. Burning through power units at the start of the campaign will simply derail things later on as potential penalties rack up.

If McLaren gets through two engines per race weekend, it will already be on to penalties by the third race of the season in Bahrain.

But grid penalties could be one of McLaren's smallest concerns if things do not improve: for Alonso's future at the team would almost certainly have question marks over it by then.

For all the two-time champion's talk about being more motivated than ever if the car is uncompetitive, do not imagine for one second that the Spaniard will happily stick around if he is constantly qualifying at the back and not finishing.

He has already put his hand in the air and said he wants to remain in F1 in 2018 come what may this year. Take that as a clear 'come and get me' sign for any of the big teams.

But losing Alonso is not the only danger from a dire 2017 campaign. If it turns out really bad, McLaren risks losing its best staff, the constructors' championship money will drop and no new sponsors will come knocking.

The negative downward spiral could be a hard thing to turn around.

Instant response

It was no wonder then that Alonso spoke not of blind optimism that his team and Honda had the answers needed to get there in the end, but of something totally different.

Time and again through his media briefings he mentioned the need for an 'immediate' and 'big' response from the team about what happens next.

"I'm hoping for an incredibly strong reaction from the team," he said, without ever elaborating on what he meant.

On the one side, he could be talking about the need for a major overhaul at Honda if it is to quickly address issues. It's culture of being reluctant to embrace outside help, to listen to guidance from consultants like Gilles Simon and even McLaren at times, has been a frustration for those involved.

Perhaps only by ditching that old mentality can it have any hope of facing up to the reality of the difficult situation it has got itself in to. It needs a new approach, new lines of communications, new technology, fresh ideas and a willingness to be more open to change.

But maybe Alonso was also talking of the need for McLaren to ponder whether its future is best served with Honda in the long term.

There is a long-term contract in place between McLaren and Honda, and the Japanese manufacturer's commercial input to the team means that simply ripping up its deal and walking away isn't an option right now.

But how long can McLaren give Honda before it is forced down that route? Or even Honda is convinced [or can become convinced] that its F1 project isn't going to work in its current guise.

If things get as far as the relationship getting untangled, then there is at least one silver lining – that F1's regulations will guarantee McLaren a competitive engine.

As part of an engine manufacturer deal agreed last year, if Honda leaves, then Mercedes, Ferrari or Renault (who are all currently supplying three teams each), must make a supply available to a customer team (as long as certain conditions are met).

In fact, according to the rules, the decision on which engine McLaren could get could come down to a 'ballot' - with the final choice drawn out of a hat!

One rival manufacturer cheekily suggested such a draw should take place live on television for a bit of added excitement.

Such an event still seems a long way away, but you can be sure that right now things are pretty intense in the corridors of Woking and Sakura.

Crisis point

Nothing is lost yet, and let's not forget that in 2014, Red Bull and Renault endured a nightmare start to testing but got their act together to win races later in the year.

Such a scenario is not impossible but things are going to have to change somewhere if that scenario is going to repeat itself.

The dictionary definition of a crisis is: "A time when a difficult or important decision must be made."

For McLaren and Honda, that time is now.

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About this article
Series Formula 1
Drivers Fernando Alonso , Stoffel Vandoorne
Teams McLaren
Article type Analysis