Could Fuel Be the Key to McLaren-Honda's Revival in Formula 1?

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Could Fuel Be the Key to McLaren-Honda's Revival in Formula 1?
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In the end, it was simply just too good to be true.

The upcoming 2016 Formula One season looked set to become very interesting in late January when it was reported McLaren-Honda had made a "breakthrough" with the development of their V6 turbo power unit, which proved so troublesome throughout last year as the team finished second-bottom in the constructors' standings.

According to Spanish publication AS (h/t F1i.com's Andrew Lewin), 24-hour shifts during the winter break, including the Christmas and New Year period, had resulted in Honda not only addressing the issues with their engine, but improving it to an extent beyond the power of their wildest dreams.

The Japanese manufacturer, it was claimed, had somehow extracted an extra 223 horsepower from the engine, which in 2015 terms would have placed McLaren "within touching distance" of the dominant Mercedes team, who have won 32 of the last 38 races and the last two drivers' and constructors' titles.

Rather than fighting between themselves and the occasional Sauber for 13th place, Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button could look forward to racing Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg and Sebastian Vettel for podiums and grand prix victories, if not world championships, and being back where they truly belong.

Or so it seemed.

Given that Mercedes and Ferrari only found 15-20 and 65 horsepower, respectively, over the winter of 2014-15, per BBC Sport's Andrew Benson, the prospect of Honda—still very much newcomers to the V6 technology—making such significant gains, despite having more scope for development than their rivals, was always fanciful.

And, tellingly, it took them just three days to deny the report as "unsubstantiated and merely speculative," per Sky Sports' William Esler.

Gone, it appears, are the days of McLaren and Honda making outlandish statements concerning their rate of progress and level of competitiveness only to be left embarrassed and increasingly disheartened when those targets are not met. 

Muted expectations are the order of the day in an era when the pursuit of a so-called silver bullet is secondary to gradual improvement in all areas, with the current-generation powertrains requiring excellence from the internal-combustion engine, the turbocharger, the energy-recovery systems and even the fuel tank.

Not too long ago, fuel suppliers were merely another sticker on the car—no more integral to a team's on-track performance than the flurry of corporate partners dealing in anything from wristwatches and hotels to logistics and home appliances.

Since the V6 regulations were implemented at the beginning of 2014, however—forcing cars to complete a race distance on a third less fuel than in the V8 era—the relationship between engine manufacturers and their lubricants providers is increasingly crucial.

That became abundantly clear at the end of last season when Shell, Ferrari's fuel partner, claimed it was responsible for as much as 25 per cent of the team's "power unit performance gain" in 2015, per its official website, worth 0.5 seconds per lap and 30 seconds over a grand prix.

Although the exact numbers were debatable—Toto Wolff, the Mercedes team boss, told Autosport's Ian Parkes that Shell's estimation was "probably not quite where the reality lies"—such figures have only underlined the importance of the engine-fuel dynamic.

With that in mind, it is notable that each of Honda's three rival engine manufacturers have long-standing, highly distinguishable collaborations with their fuel suppliers. 

Getty Images/Getty Images
The long, successful partnership between Ferrari and Shell is a match made in heaven. Can the same be said of Honda's bond with Mobil 1?

Ferrari's links to Shell stretch back as far as 1929, per the team's official website, while Total's official website claims its "historic partnership" with Renault has lasted more than four decades. And Malaysian company Petronas will enter its seventh season as Mercedes' title sponsor in 2016.

But Honda themselves?

When the Japanese manufacturer became McLaren's engine supplier at the beginning of 2015, they were left to inherit and make do with Mobil 1—a name synonymous with the team's previous deal with Mercedes.

At a time the team are losing major sponsors—Hugo Boss defected to Mercedes in 2015, while TAG Heuer has switched to Red Bull ahead of 2016—Mobil 1's continued presence is symbolically important to McLaren, who ran a one-off livery at the 2014 Australian GP in celebration of their 20-year partnership.

But despite motorsport boss Yasuhisa Arai's insistence, per F1i.com's Chris Medland, that Honda are working "very closely" and "directly" with Mobil 1, could the fuel supplier—or Honda's capability of harnessing the potential of the fuel supplier—be another obstacle in McLaren's bumpy road back to the front of the grid?

McLaren-Honda's unprecedented success in the late 1980s and early '90s, after all, was achieved with Shell, and although Ferrari would almost certainly prevent the resumption of that alliance, Honda's cars were filled with fuel provided by ENEOS, the Japanese brand, when they competed with their own team between 2006 and '08.

Mark Thompson/Getty Images
ENEOS provided the fuel used by Honda when the Japanese manufacturer had their own F1 team between 2006 and 2008.

With Honda based in Sakura, the benefits of two Japanese companies working together to develop both the engine and the accompanying lubricants are obvious, and it would eliminate at least some of the cultural differences often blamed for McLaren's shortcomings in 2015.

Yet McLaren's reciprocated loyalty to Mobil 1 has seemingly obliged Honda—very much determined to do things their way, as Arai told Autosport's Parkes and Ben Anderson in 2015—to work alongside a particular fuel supplier.

Of course, should the team produce a reasonably competitive engine in 2016, and Honda and Mobil 1 establish a productive working relationship in their second season together, concerns about the intricacies of the power unit will fade away.

Clive Mason/Getty Images

But if the powertrain again fails to live up to expectations, who knows? Might McLaren be reluctantly forced into yet another uncomfortable divorce from yet another one of their highly valued, long-serving allies for the sake of their relationship with Honda?

It is a storyline worth tracking in the opening months of the new season, but one thing is for sure: In an era of fuel warfare, when the likes of Petronas and Shell are gifting Mercedes and Ferrari heaps upon heaps of time, McLaren-Honda cannot afford to waste theirs with the wrong mixture.

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