Assessing Where McLaren-Honda Stand After 2015 F1 Pre-Season Test at Jerez

Oliver Harden@@OllieHardenFeatured ColumnistFebruary 11, 2015

JEREZ DE LA FRONTERA, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 02:  Jenson Button of Great Britain and McLaren Honda drives during day two of Formula One Winter Testing at Circuito de Jerez on February 2, 2015 in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
Mark Thompson/Getty Images

"The Power of Dreams" came close to producing the stuff of nightmares last week as a McLaren-Honda Formula One car returned to the track for the first time in 22 years.

The long-awaited renewal of a chassis-engine partnership which delivered one of the truly wondrous periods in F1 history—four constructors' and drivers' titles shared between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost in the late 1980s and early '90s—almost brought with it an anticlimax.

In four days of testing at the Jerez circuit, the McLaren MP4-30 completed a measly 79 laps and was the only car which failed to pass the 100-lap mark at the Spanish track.

If the mileage was unsatisfactory, the pace of the new McLaren was nearly disastrous.

The MP4-30, despite being handled around Jerez by two-time world champion Fernando Alonso and 2009 title-winner Jenson Button—who make up the strongest driver pairing currently in the sport—was the slowest car to set a lap time on each of the four days.

In any other year, at any other time, the cold, hard facts and stats would have left a team as proud as McLaren shuddering.

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Former team boss Martin Whitmarsh paid for McLaren's terrible 2013 campaign with his job.
Former team boss Martin Whitmarsh paid for McLaren's terrible 2013 campaign with his job.Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Fingers would have been pointed, voices would have been raised. Team members would have begun living in fear of the bullet, and drivers would have started plotting potential exit routes.

Yet despite their seemingly lacklustre test in terms of both distance covered and outright speed, McLaren would have entered the two-week break until the second test at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya among the most content teams in the pit lane.

The Jerez test—especially after a post-2014 season test at the Yas Marina circuit, which, according to BBC Sport's Andrew Benson, saw the team's Honda-engined interim car complete just five laps—was always bound to be geared toward guiding the Japanese manufacturer's new power unit through its initial teething problems.

It was about quickly identifying the inevitable issues with the new software and, above all, addressing and fixing them efficiently and successfully. 

And in that regard, the first test of 2015 was a qualified success for McLaren.

That much was clear in the gradual improvement in the team's lap count as the Jerez test progressed. After competing a combined total of 12 laps across the opening two days, Alonso returned to the cockpit on Day 3 to record 32 laps before Button added a further 35 on the final day.

An upward curve, although less important at this stage, was also evident in lap times.

Alonso's fastest effort on the penultimate day, as per the team's Day 3 report, was a time of 1:35.553 seconds, which was 14 seconds slower than the pace-setting time of Sauber's Felipe Nasr and 11.652 seconds adrift of the second-slowest time of the day set by Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo.

Just 24 hours later, Button—according to McLaren's Day 4 summary—ended the test within seven seconds of Kimi Raikkonen's leading time and had closed the gap with Red Bull, this time driven by Daniil Kvyat, to 3.685 seconds.

Such progress in such little time must surely have increased confidence as McLaren departed Jerez, despite a premature end to their running on three of the four days of the test.

Honda's decision—despite the announcement of their McLaren partnership in May 2013—to delay their return to Formula One until this year, as opposed to joining Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault in manufacturing the V6 turbo hybrids for the 2014 campaign, was in part down to the company's desire to spend more time in research and development.

TOKYO, JAPAN - FEBRUARY 10: Honda logo is seen on McLaren Honda MP4-29H/1X1 is displayed in front of the Honda Motor Co. headquarters on February 10, 2015 in Tokyo, Japan. Honda Motor Co., Ltd. will hold a press conference in the run-up to the Australian
Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Although the wisdom of that decision is a cause for debate—and one that will undoubtedly be proven either inspired or catastrophic as 2015 unfolds—one significant advantage of the Japanese manufacturer's postponed comeback has already been made clear.

While in 2014, the existing three engine manufacturers were left in the dark following the largest set of regulation changes in F1 history, McLaren-Honda are in a position to judge their progress with the new technology with far more accuracy, almost using the experiences of Renault, Ferrari and Mercedes 12 months ago as templates.

Miguel Morenatti/Associated Press

That knowledge—as well as McLaren's experience with the Mercedes power unit in 2014—should mean that the team approach any obstacles with a calmer outlook and greater clarity of thought than they otherwise might have.

There was evidence of this at Jerez, where on Day 2 Button referred to Red Bull's and Renault's struggles throughout testing in 2014—the RB10 completed just 21 laps in the opening test of last year but recovered to win three races and finish second in the championship—while discussing his own team's troubles.

The 35-year-old told Sky Sports' Pete Gill:

Obviously, it’s not been the best start but we knew this would be difficult. These power units are very complicated but we will get our heads around it.

A lot can happen. Look at Red Bull in the first test a year ago and even in the last test in Bahrain. Although they had the result taken away from them, they then finished second (in the first race) in Australia.

The two upcoming tests at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, a more representative circuit in terms of track conditions and layout, should see McLaren make further progress, although a lack of warm-weather pre-season testing could hurt them ahead of the start of the campaign.

Last year, two of the three tests were held at the Bahrain International Circuit as a means of subjecting the new power units to hot conditions.

F1 headed to Bahrain to give the engines a real test in 2014.
F1 headed to Bahrain to give the engines a real test in 2014.Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

However, Honda will be fortunate if their engine runs in weather warmer than 14 degrees Celsius, as per the BBC's long-range forecast, which could make them vulnerable at races as notoriously hot as Malaysia, the second round of the season.

Those are concerns for another day, though.

The Jerez time sheets might not have looked special, but McLaren seemed to make a breakthrough, as Button hinted to the team's official website, in their understanding of the MP4-30 at the first test.

As pre-season preparations go, McLaren are on par ahead of the final two tests.