McLaren start the Formula 1 season in Australia with star signing Fernando Alonso absent and recovering from concussion, a Honda engine that has yet to run sweetly and a car that has spent more time in the garage than testing on track.
Crisis? What crisis?
The team’s racing director Eric Boullier, a Frenchman with enough sangfroid to match any English stiff upper lip, is certainly not about to panic even if others are already predicting a long, hard slog ahead.
“It’s true that we didn’t do as many laps as we wanted. It’s true that it’s going to hurt the development of the car… but we will recover,” he assured reporters at the end of the final pre-season test in Barcelona.
“It’s not that negative or disappointing… all the systems on the engine are working, cooling is working. The base is exactly as per plan.”
McLaren, the second most successful team in the sport after Ferrari in terms of race wins, always knew 2015 would be a difficult year.
A new partnership with Honda, the Japanese engine manufacturer that powered the team in some of their greatest years with Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, may take McLaren back to the summit but it was sure to encounter teething problems along the way.
Even with the dominant Mercedes engine on board last year, McLaren still failed to win a race and have not won a championship since Lewis Hamilton’s first in 2008.
“Of course we’re prepared for a steep learning curve,” Spaniard Alonso said in January when the tightly-packaged new car was presented.
“You don’t expect to be at the top of the mountain the day you start climbing,” added group head Ron Dennis at a launch in Tokyo last month.
“We are very much preparing for the climb, and it’s going to be a challenging climb. But it’s a climb that both Honda and McLaren have made several times together.”
Alonso’s accident in the second Barcelona test, with the double champion spending three nights in hospital, has made the climb that much steeper and left the team batting off conspiracy theories and speculation about what happened.
McLaren have ruled out mechanical failure and dismissed speculation that the driver was rendered unconscious by an electric shock from the car’s energy recovery system.
But the stories keep coming. One newspaper report emerging from Spain on Thursday suggested Alonso woke up in hospital with no memory of the last 20 years and talking as if he was a 13-year-old kart racer.
This was not the start envisaged when Alonso’s return to McLaren, the team he left under a cloud in 2007, was trumpeted as the start of a brave new era.
Jenson Button, the 2009 champion, will instead be partnered by Danish reserve Kevin Magnussen – a flashback to 2014 when they were together – with Alonso scheduled to return in Malaysia.
McLaren have said they do not expect to be fully competitive until at least the start of the European season in Spain, round five of the championship, but they had expected to do more in testing.
The figures from the final four days in Barcelona made depressing reading: While Sauber completed a whopping 545 laps, and all the other teams managed at least 350, McLaren put in only 177.
Button did 100 of those on one day, saying it felt more like 1 000 after all the team’s previous troubles.
“We won’t be as ready as we would like but we will do our best, obviously,” said Boullier.
“The positive is that everything is working as per design and plan. The reliability is still a concern, clearly. I don’t know how long it is going to take (to improve).
“I think it is going to take a few races but we should be at least maybe by Europe ready to be more competitive.”