Analysis: Why Honda faces a 240bhp headache

Analysis: Why Honda faces a 240bhp headache
Jonathan Noble
By: Jonathan Noble
Sep 14, 2015, 9:05 AM

The worst may well be behind the McLaren-Honda partnership with power tracks Spa and Monza done and dusted, but that does not mean it is plain-sailing in Formula 1 from now on.

Fernando Alonso, McLaren MP4-30
Jenson Button, McLaren MP4-30
Jenson Button, McLaren MP4-30
Jenson Button, McLaren MP4-30
Jenson Button, McLaren
Fernando Alonso, McLaren MP4-30
Jenson Button, McLaren MP4-30
Jenson Button, McLaren MP4-30
Fernando Alonso, McLaren MP4-30
Yasuhisa Arai, Honda Motorsport Chief Officer
Fernando Alonso, McLaren MP4-30
Fernando Alonso, McLaren
Jenson Button, McLaren MP4-30
Yasuhisa Arai, Honda Motorsport Chief Officer in the FIA Press Conference
Fernando Alonso, McLaren MP4-30
Jenson Button, McLaren
Jenson Button, McLaren MP4-30
Eric Boullier, McLaren Racing Director
Jenson Button, McLaren
Fernando Alonso, McLaren MP4-30

Far from it, in fact, for the last few weeks have highlighted what a steep climb the renewed Anglo-Japanese partnership still faces.

Yes, there remains hope that this weekend's race in Singapore can provide some respite from recent troubles, but the need for a longer term transformation in form has never been more apparent.

And however much Honda has kept a brave face on its progress and internal combustion engine performance, it is now an open secret that there are times when Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso are having to live with a 240bhp deficit on their rivals.

Power games

There has been plenty of talk this season about where the Honda stacks up against the opposition, but it has only been in recent weeks that the focus on a lack of performance of its energy recovery systems (ERS) has become apparent.

That is because Spa and Monza have highlighted for everyone just where the Honda package is lacking.

On the long flat-out blasts at both tracks, both Button and Fernando Alonso find themselves without any ERS deployment for the final sections of straights, meaning their speeds often drop even before they get to the official speed traps.

That in effect means, for sections of the circuit, their their opposition have a 160bhp (120KW) advantage that they can use right until the braking zone – perfect for overtaking!

As Jenson Button remarked after the Italian Grand Prix when he slipped down the order, it was why he was left a sitting duck.

"I was just waiting for them to come by – they are overtaking you in places that you didn't think were possible - you are looking in your mirrors on entry to every corners," he said.

"We are not deploying out of Turn 5 until the exit of Turn 7 – so we are 160bhp down on other people, plus the less we have on the ICE."

So if you add that 160bhp deficit on to where the ICE is lacking compared to Mercedes (which is widely believed to be around 80bhp) that leaves Honda facing up to a scenario where it needs to find 240bhp if it going to match the best.

The engine/chassis battle

Honda has been at pains all season to defend the performance of its engine, and suggests that a lot of the laptime deficit is down to deficiencies in the chassis.

Fernando Alonso pointedly had a few remarks suggesting otherwise at Monza when, after qualifying, he said that power was the key problem.

"It's a track with six corners – on the GPS we lose two or three tenths in those six corners," he explained.

"The rest of the three seconds, we lose on the straights. We are on full-throttle with the steering wheel straight."

While getting access to McLaren's GPS data is impossible – meaning we cannot prove or disprove Alonso's remarks – one rival team did offer some insight about where it thinks its Woking rival stacks up.

According to its data from the Belgian GP, it appears that the McLaren could be as good as the fourth quickest chassis overall through corners, beaten only by the Mercedes, Red Bull and Toro Rosso.

Having crunched the numbers and compared the McLaren to a Mercedes on a quick practice lap, some interesting figures emerged too.

Up to the exit of La Source for example, the Mercedes was just 0.2 seconds ahead. By the time the cars got to Les Combes, the Mercedes had gained a further one second.

However, from that point on, until the exit of Paul Frere Corner, the Mercedes only pulled another 0.4 seconds ahead.

A further 0.6 seconds was lost between that point and the chicane, and more again accelerating out of it.

Overall, the GPS data suggested that McLaren was losing more that 2.3 seconds per lap on the straights, and only around half a second on the corners.

Compared to the other manufacturers, McLaren was said to be around two seconds adrift of Ferrari on the straights, and 1.1 seconds to Red Bull.

Sorting the problem

While the Honda ICE has improved a bit this year, it is clear that much work is needed on its ERS.

Work on that area has already begun, with Honda at Spa relocating an ERS water cooler away from the top of the air box.

Its new position helps the cars aerodynamics – with slimmed down engine cover and side pods – and will have a knock-on impact in terms of overall centre-of-gravity too.

Sources suggest that one key area of focus is the compressor, which can only be changed this winter because of the limits imposed by the current engine homologation rules.

But do the changes that Honda needs extend beyond just technical?

Change of strategy

Honda's motorsport boss Yasuhisa Arai has already talked about a new concept for next year, but whether it will be enough to recover that 240bhp target remains to be seen.

One thing Honda does not have though is much time, for the pressure is mounting quickly on it to make dramatic gains.

So far, Honda has resisted trying to fast-track its progress by recruiting high fliers from Mercedes or Ferrari: but the acceptance now on the ERS issues could force a change of heart.

No war of words

So far, at least, the relationship between McLaren and Honda has not hit the depths of Red Bull and Renault's war of words at least.

Racing director Eric Boullier said: "We have a different relationship. We are a works team.

"The relationship is very different and as long as Honda welcomes whatever we can bring or help and as long as the timing suits our strategy and driver wishes, we will never reach that situation.

"The structure is a matrix structure and it works well. We want to win, we have a timing issue, maybe because we are starting from so far. we want to make sure we want to win as early as possible.

"We discuss the matter with the Honda management but we are happy so far with the structure."

McLaren is publicly keeping a brave face on the situation, even though a potential ninth place finish in the constructors' championship and potential loss of sponsors because of current performance levels is going to start hurting it financially.

For now, though, it is doing all it can to keep things progressing. Standing still this winter is simply not an option.

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