Realistic Expectations for McLaren-Honda in 2016 Formula 1 Season

Oliver Harden@@OllieHardenFeatured ColumnistJanuary 19, 2016

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 28:  Jenson Button of Great Britain and McLaren Honda drives during qualifying for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 28, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
Paul Gilham/Getty Images

If McLaren-Honda didn't laugh, they would have cried buckets as the 2015 season came to a close.

What else, after all, could they do, having recorded just six points finishes, failed to make a single appearance in Q3 and finished second-bottom in the constructors' championship? This was not only their third winless season in succession, but their worst in 35 years, as one of the most iconic teams in the history of Formula One were brought to their knees.

How fortunate, then, that they had Jenson Button—no stranger to Honda-related disappointments—to brighten the mood.

McLaren Honda's British driver Jenson Button attends the first practice session of the Russian Formula One Grand Prix at the Sochi Autodrom circuit on October 9, 2015. AFP PHOTO / ANDREJ ISAKOVIC        (Photo credit should read ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP/Getty
ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/Getty Images

After crossing the line to finish 12th following one of his strongest—or rather, most defiant—performances of the year at the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Button knew he simply couldn't disappear for the winter without offering a message of support.

Having won the world championship in 2009, just 12 months after Honda's sudden withdrawal from F1 left his career in jeopardy, he knows more than most just how quickly things can change—and, indeed, change back again—in this business.

And as he completed his final-ever lap in the ghastly MP4-30, Button used team radio—ensuring his words were transmitted not only to the pit wall and the garage, but those at the McLaren Technology Centre and in the comfort of their own homes—to deliver an end-of-season speech, encouraging his colleagues to keep the faith.

SUZUKA, JAPAN - SEPTEMBER 25:  Jenson Button of Great Britain and McLaren Honda sits in his car in the garage during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Japan at Suzuka Circuit on September 25, 2015 in Suzuka.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
Mark Thompson/Getty Images
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"Well, at least that was fun! Eh? That was fun. As you can see, we have a few weaknesses we need to solve!" he chuckled, per Sky Sports' television coverage. "So, yeah, I mean we have a few weaknesses, we know exactly what to do—and we can do it, guys!

"It's going to be a long winter but a good winter."

The plan for 2016, as Button later told Autosport's Ian Parkes, is simple: McLaren want to "do a Ferrari." They want instant success. An overnight return to competitiveness.

JEREZ DE LA FRONTERA, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 04:  Kimi Raikkonen of Finland and Ferrari and Jenson Button of Great Britain and McLaren Honda drive during day four of Formula One Winter Testing at Circuito de Jerez on February 4, 2015 in Jerez de la Frontera, Sp
Mark Thompson/Getty Images

If Ferrari, who employed three separate team principals and sacked several other high-profile members of staff during a miserable 2014 campaign, managed to win multiple races, claim countless podiums and even set a pole position the following year, why can't the might of McLaren do the same?

In Button and Fernando Alonso, the two-time world champion, they have the finest driver pairing on the current grid. In Eric Boullier and Jost Capito, a new recruit from Volkswagen's World Rally Championship-winning program, they have two of the most impressive motor-racing leaders of this decade. And in the MTC, they have the most magnificent facility to start their revival. 

And if they get the on-track matters right and the podiums begin to flow once again, surely the current off-track concerns—the lingering presence of Ron Dennis and the obvious commercial difficulties—will fade away?

Yet while a step forward must be envisaged this year, it is fanciful to think a team who scored just 27 points over the course of a full season in 2015 will suddenly be capable of extracting around 27 points from a single grand prix.

The new MP4-31, which will be launched on the eve of the first of two pre-season tests, should be the first McLaren chassis to be fully designed by Peter Prodromou, formerly the right-hand man of Adrian Newey and a marquee signing from Red Bull Racing in September 2014.

Although Prodromou arrived a little too late to have a major influence on the 2015 car, his impact—as noted by The Racer's Edge YouTube channel—was evident as the season progressed, with McLaren running with Red Bull-style front wings and aggressive rake in addition to the tightly packaged, "size-zero" rear end.

Those innovations were largely why, per BBC Sport's Andrew Benson, the MP4-30 was regarded as "the fourth or fifth best chassis" on last year's grid and, dare we say, Prodromou should aspire to become McLaren's answer to James Allison, who despite joining Ferrari in mid-2013 was unable to unveil a car of his own making until 2015.

As reported by Motorsport.com's Jonathan Noble in December, the MP4-31 has produced "encouraging figures" in the wind tunnel, but—as McLaren discovered last season—a reasonably strong chassis is nothing without a powerful, reliable and efficient engine.

And Honda's success in resolving their problems with their RA615H power unit will again make or break McLaren's season.

The one positive of such a disappointing, anonymous season in 2015 was that by the end, Honda knew exactly what their issues were, with motorsport chief Yasuhisa Arai telling F1i.com's Chris Medland how the Japanese manufacturer struggled with reliability and deployment.

Although McLaren's uncompromising size-zero design contributed to the team's 14 race retirements and countless other issues in test, practice and qualifying sessions, their reliability record, as we witnessed in the second half of 2015, is certain to improve as Honda's engine matures.

Their problems with deployment, however—which, according to BBC Sport's Benson, meant Alonso and Button "ran out of hybrid power" along the longest straights because their energy-recovery systems were unable to harvest enough energy—are far more serious.

As Arai told F1i.com's Medland, Honda have "fixed" the concept and plan to increase the size of their turbocharger, and this year they will benefit from their own engine-token allocation, having been given an average of the number used by Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault in 2015.

Yet for all the improvements they could make, the simple fact is that Honda, in development terms, will forever be playing catch-up against the likes of Mercedes and Ferrari, having returned to F1 12 months after the V6 regulations were introduced.

Even if Honda, as Motorsport.com's Noble claims, make the "significant step forward in pace" they are expecting, such improvements may be barely noticeable alongside those made by their rival manufacturers.

SOCHI, RUSSIA - OCTOBER 10:  Fernando Alonso of Spain and McLaren Honda drives during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on October 10, 2015 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
Mark Thompson/Getty Images

As noted at the beginning of 2016, the extent of McLaren's struggles in recent seasons means they are arguably undeserving of a Ferrari-like leap back to the front of the grid, but the team should enjoy a more respectable season.

Regular appearances in the third segment of qualifying, consistent, minor-points finishes and a top-six finish in the constructors' standings—in touching distance of the Mercedes and Ferrari customer teams—would be a sufficient if unspectacular way for them to begin their recovery.

And, of course, to prove 2015 was just a one-off.