Ayrton Senna and Gerhard Berger at Magny Cours Original 1991 by Paul Velasco (2)

Inside Line: McLaren Honda too good to be true

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They say if something sounds too good to be true, then it generally is!

Such were the platitudes offered at the re-commencement of the McLaren Honda partnership. A return to the classic days. As so often these days though, the hype has been very different from reality.

Now entering their third year together, progress has been slow and painful, and now such is the perceived bad taste flavour surrounding the relationship that there is talk of divorce, as has been featured in articles on grandprix247.com.

It pains me to see my old team to have fallen to such a low, a top team with such a glorious history and heritage, now ignominiously running at the mid to back of the Formula One field.

I wonder what Ayrton Senna would have thought of the current situation?

Ayrton, who would have been 57 years old on March 21st, won 32 of his 41 Grand Prix wins in a Honda engined car, two with Lotus and 30 with McLaren, and he was an integral part of the McLaren Honda package.

Between 1988 to 1992, McLaren Honda won four consecutive World Drivers and Constructors Championships and 44 Grand Prix wins, which were achieved by the two best drivers of their time, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna. This was combined with engine development which was very much towards the pinnacle of the performance cycle, if not at its peak.

Honda have effectively now had four chapters in Formula One, stretching back from 1964 to the present day. Their engines have powered a total of 72 Grand Prix wins, although this doesn’t take into account the three wins for Jordan with a Mugen Honda engine. To put things in perspective the most recent victory for a Honda engine car was in 2006 at the Hungarian Grand Prix with Jenson Button in a BAR Honda. Historically only Honda’s second phase in Formula One between 1983 to 1992 has borne real success.

Honda first entered Formula One in 1964 scoring their first victory the following year in Mexico with the American driver Ritchie Ginther. This was followed two years later in 1967 in Italy with the recently sadly departed John Surtees, the only man ever to have won World Championships on both two and four wheels. However in 1968 after the death of Jo Schlesser, Honda made its first withdrawal from the sport having won just two Grands Prix.

Honda returned to Formula One in 1983, initially with the uncompetitive Spirit and then 23 victories plus Nelson Piquet’s World Championship with Williams, and two wins with Lotus and Ayrton Senna.

When the McLaren Honda partnership commenced in 1988, Honda was a well established in Formula One as an successful engine manufacturer and was a much sought after partner – hence the raid by McLaren on Williams and Ayrton Senna, who by this time had become pivotal in the Honda relationship.

That initial season in 1988 was one of almost complete domination, taking 15 out of 16 Grand Prix wins, 15 out of 16 pole positions and 97% of all laps led. In fact, if it wasn’t for Ayrton at Monza tripping over Jean Louis Schlesser (ironically the nephew of Jo Schlesser, whose death marked Honda’s first withdrawal), there would have been a 100% record!

In addition 1988 was the last year of the turbo before switching back to normally aspirated engines. So while other turbo engines were being used for the last year, Honda built a brand new V6 engine specifically for that year.

During their partnership, McLaren Honda won four consecutive Driver and Contractors World Championships and a total of 44 Grand Prix wins from 80 starts, the last victory being the final race of the partnership at the 1992 Australian Grand Prix in Adelaide with Gerhard Berger.

Honda returned to Formula One in 2000, providing engines for British American Racing (BAR) and at the end of 2005 they bought out the BAR team, renaming it Honda Racing.

Due to the global financial crisis at the end of 2008 Honda announced its exit from Formula One and sold the team, which led to the management buyout by Ross Brawn. Ironically, the newly named Brawn GP, now powered by Mercedes, went on to win the 2009 World Championship with Jenson Button. For those interested in reading the fascinating inside story, I can thoroughly recommend the book “Total Competition, lessons in strategy from Formula One” by Ross Brawn and Adam Parr.

On 17 May 2013, Honda commenced their fourth chapter in Formula One when they announced their intention to return to the sport in 2015 with a works agreement with McLaren to supply V6 engines and kinetic energy recovery system units. This so far has not been a success and their worst involvement, using a power unit much down on power than its competitors.

Did McLaren make the right choice, is Honda entirely to blame and is a divorce imminent?

Firstly you have to look at the options available to McLaren at the time. The relationship with Mercedes had deteriorated and they had been downgraded to being in effect a customer team. The difference between a ‘works team’ and a customer team is that as a customer team you have to pay for your engines, whilst as a works team not only are the engines generally free, but the engine manufacturer usually makes a hefty financial contribution, often to cover all or partially the drivers retainers. Whilst at the time there were various scenarios in the media of potential engine partners, Honda must have been the logical available choice.

It’s very easy to point the finger at Honda, with the very public showings of a down on power, power unit. It used to make so much more sense to call this an engine, but the technology is now so far advanced that the engine is only part of the equation and total power is accumulated with the addition of the Energy Recovery Systems, formerly known as KERS.

To quote the definition from the Formula One website:

“ERS consists of Motor Generator Units that harness waste heat energy (from the turbocharger) and waste kinetic energy (from the braking system). This energy is then stored and subsequently used to propel the car. An F1 car has two ERS: MGU-K (which stands for Motor Generator Unit – Kinetic) and MGU-H (which stands for Motor Generator Unit – Heat). These systems are complemented by an Energy Store (ES) and control electronics. ERS is capable of providing 120kw of power (approximately 160bhp) for approximately 33 seconds per lap.”

It appears that Honda have been struggling with this highly sophisticated technology and are way behind the dominant Mercedes, who have developed their system over a long period.

Knowing how McLaren’s contracts in terms of words would probably rival the novel “War and Peace”, one can only presume that there must be extensive performance safeguards written into the contract, but have they been met?

Also, as written earlier, the Honda racing pedigree shouldn’t be judged on the basis of previous McLaren success of 1988 to 1992, but maybe more on the basis of 2000 to 2008, where success was patchy if not to say partial. However the same can be said for McLaren who haven’t won a World Championship since 2008 and their last Grand Prix win was in 2012 at the Brazilian Grand Prix with Jenson Button.

My years with McLaren was 1985 to 2002 and very much part of a golden era. I recently attended an event at the RAC Club in London generously organised by McLaren to commemorate the life of an old colleague and friend Peter Stayner. With around 160 attending what was very obvious was the special bond that unites the team from that earlier period. When you live, work and spend so much time with so many special and talented people, they effectively become your second family and you look after each other, working towards a common goal and success. I am not sure that this exists anymore, which may be a symptom of how life has changed as teams have grown and become more corporate.

Finally will there be a divorce? Again there has been a lot written about this recently. It is a difficult dilemma. On the one hand the the team needs to be competitive, to keep top class drivers, to earn F1 Constructors money, and also for the all important sponsorship.

On the other hand there is a comprehensive agreement in place, which is understood to have a break clause at the end of 2017. However Honda not only supply free engines, plus they contribute significantly to the budget and contribute to the drivers fees, a total figure that must be in the region of a couple of hundred million dollars.

To cap it all, what is the alternative? In view of past history a return to a relationship with Mercedes is unlikely. Even if it was then McLaren would be a customer team and most likely pay dearly for it. There seems to be no obvious alternative manufacturer outside of F1 readily available and even if there were, there would be a lengthy development gestation period involved to develop a suitable alternative. Therefore from the outside it looks like a prolonged period of “grin and bear it”, whilst trying to increase McLaren’s technical input.

However this is Formula One, so anything could happen!

So what would Ayrton think? By now he would probably have become the President of Brazil. He probably would be the one negotiating with Bernie and or Liberty, for the continuation of the Brazilian Grand Prix, and no doubt arguing hard for a reduction in the fee due to the diminishing popularity of F1.

As for McLaren, I am sure he would have plenty of advice to give, particularly to Honda!

Inside Line Opinion by Peter Burns