F1's Latest Rumours and Talk: McLaren-Honda Breakthrough, Jenson Button and More

Oliver Harden@@OllieHardenFeatured ColumnistJanuary 25, 2016

F1's Latest Rumours and Talk: McLaren-Honda Breakthrough, Jenson Button and More

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    After finishing ninth in the constructors' championship in 2015, McLaren-Honda are under pressure to come back fighting in the 2016 Formula One season. 

    The progress, or lack of it, the team have made over the winter will be the defining story of the two pre-season tests. Will they make an overnight return to competitiveness? Or will their predicament get even worse before it gets better?

    The early signs, however, are very promising indeed, with it being reported that Honda have made a major breakthrough in the development of their V6 turbo power unit.

    If true, that news will return a smile to the face of Jenson Button, who was restricted to just four points finishes in 2015. Like team-mate Fernando Alonso, Button is more accustomed to fighting for world championships, grand prix victories and podiums rather than minor points finishes.

    But the 2009 title winner has revealed his previous disappointments in F1—many of which, it must be said, were the result of Honda's failings—allowed him to deal with the frustration of last season.

    If Stoffel Vandoorne has his way, this year will be Button's last in F1, with the Belgian reiterating his desire to earn a race seat with McLaren in 2017.

    Vandoorne is currently representing the team in the wet-tyre test at the Paul Ricard circuit, but the reigning GP2 champion has insisted he has not been guaranteed a place at McLaren next season.

    Meanwhile, the F1 drivers are pushing to have increased cockpit-safety measures implemented in time for 2017 following the tragic deaths of Jules Bianchi and Justin Wilson in 2015.

    Closing this week's roundup is Daniel Ricciardo, who has expressed his desire to race in the Le Mans 24 Hours after Red Bull Racing denied him the privilege last season.

McLaren-Honda Make 'Major' Progress with Engine Development Ahead of 2016

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    McLaren-Honda could be set for an enormous leap in performance ahead of the 2016 season, with the engine manufacturer reportedly making substantial gains with their V6 turbo power unit.

    Honda returned to Formula One at the beginning of 2015 to become McLaren's powertrain supplier—reforming one of the most iconic chassis-engine partnerships in the sport's history—but the power of dreams rapidly became the stuff of nightmares as their engine proved to be underpowered, inefficient and unreliable.

    With Jenson Button and two-time world champion Fernando Alonso, a marquee signing from Ferrari, restricted to just six points finishes over the course of the 19-race season, the team finished a lowly ninth in the constructors' championship—their worst result since 1980.

    Yasuhisa Arai, the head of Honda's motorsport activities, recently told F1i.com's Chris Medland how the Japanese company had "fixed" the two biggest issues with their engine—reliability and the deployment of the power unit's hybrid power—and it seems those improvements will pay dividends.

    According to Spanish publication AS (h/t Andrew Lewin of F1i.com), Honda have managed to extract "an extra 223 horsepower" from their engine, which if true would place them "almost within touching distance" of the 2015 performance level of Mercedes, who have won 32 of a possible 38 races since the V6 regulations were introduced.

    The source claims Honda staff have worked 24-hour shifts—without relenting over the recent festive period—in their efforts to close the gap to the leading manufacturers for 2016, with Simon Roberts recently telling the team's official website how McLaren also sacrificed their Christmas holidays.

    Although Honda's reported improvements are promising, it remains unclear whether they will be enough to propel McLaren—without a grand prix win since November 2012—back to the front of the grid, with rival engine manufacturers Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault all set to enhance their own engines ahead of 2016.

    The news of Honda's gains comes around a month after Motorsport.com's Jonathan Noble reported the new MP4-31 car—which should be the first McLaren chassis to be fully designed by former Red Bull man Peter Prodromou—has produced "encouraging figures" in the wind tunnel.

Jenson Button's Past Helps Him Handle McLaren-Honda Frustrations

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    Jenson Button has revealed his previous disappointments in Formula One helped him deal with the frustration of McLaren-Honda's struggles in 2015.

    Despite claiming the world championship in 2009, when he won six of the first seven races, Button has suffered as many highs as lows over the course of his 16 full seasons in F1 to date.

    The British driver scored his first points in just his third grand prix appearance in 2000, but he was forced to wait until the beginning of 2004 for his first podium and didn't secure his maiden victory until the 2006 Hungarian Grand Prix.

    Although that breakthrough win seemed set to propel Button to bigger and better things, he scored a combined total of nine points over the following two seasons before Honda's surprise withdrawal from F1 left his career in the balance at the end of 2008.

    With that in mind, Button's 2015 campaign—when he made just four points finishes and finished 16th in the drivers' standings as McLaren struggled with their new Honda power unit—was one of his better disappointing seasons. 

    And the 36-year-old has admitted the up-and-down nature of his career has allowed him to respond to McLaren's lack of competitiveness in a mature, philosophical manner. He told Autosport's Ian Parkes

    People come into Formula 1 at different points in their career and with teams that are competitive or uncompetitive. For me it was less competitive.

    When you first win a race, for me it means a lot more because you've worked so hard to get there, and you've gone through the pain and the struggle.

    It's very special when you win. I've never seen so many grown men cry as when I first won in 2006—the whole team.

    So going through struggles, it's tough. None of us like it, but it's necessary sometimes to come out the other side, learn from it, about who you really are as a driver, but also as a human being.

    It's made a huge difference in my career. It's made me a much stronger person.

    Per the same source, Button reiterated his confidence that McLaren and Honda will improve dramatically in 2016, adding that both team and engine manufacturer will "make big changes" in their efforts to return to the front of the grid.

Stoffel Vandoorne Hasn't Been Promised a 2017 McLaren-Honda Seat

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    Stoffel Vandoorne, the 2015 GP2 champion, has denied he has been guaranteed a McLaren-Honda seat for the 2017 season despite his appointment as the team's reserve driver for 2016.

    Despite enjoying the most dominant campaign in the history of Formula One's official feeder series, which has previously been won by the likes of Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg, Nico Hulkenberg and Romain Grosjean, Vandoorne was unable to find himself a place on the 2016 grid.

    McLaren's decision to retain Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso saw Vandoorne settle for a reserve-driver role for this season, although he is likely to combine those duties with a season in the Japanese Super Formula series.

    The Belgian has reiterated his determination to make his grand prix debut in 2017, but he has insisted McLaren has not assured him a seat, telling Motorsport.com's Pablo Elizalde

    Nothing has been promised, but I'm working my way towards F1, that's definitely where I want to be.

    I already wanted to be there this year, and I feel 100 per cent ready to be there. Unfortunately there were no places available this season, so I have to work towards 2017.

    I feel I'm in the right place [at McLaren], they trust in my abilities. There are no guarantees but it would be a good place for me to race, I've been with the team for a couple of years and we've had a lot of success together.

    Hopefully we can build on that success in the future and hopefully I can get a race drive here.

    Vandoorne's denial comes shortly after Kevin Magnussen told Danish publication Ekstra Bladet (h/t Nate Saunders of ESPN F1) how he had been promised a 2015 race seat prior to being demoted to reserve-driver role to make way for Alonso.

    McLaren released Maganussen toward the end of last year, but Vandoorne is confident he will not follow in the footsteps of his former Formula Renault 3.5 rival—whom he described as a "great driver" who "deserves to be in F1"—telling Elizalde he is "working hard with this team to get a drive one day."

    Vandoorne's relationship with Frederic Vassuer, who oversaw his progress at the ART GP2 team and, according to F1 journalist James Allen, is set to become the new Renault team principal, had seen the 23-year-old linked to a seat at the Enstone-based outfit.

    But the Belgian has claimed Renault were never an option for him, telling F1i.com's Andrew Lewin there has "never been discussions with them," and he has no "plan B."

F1 Drivers Pushing for Increased Cockpit Safety for 2017

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    As the debate surrounding the 2017 Formula One regulations continues, Grand Prix Drivers' Association chairman Alexander Wurz has revealed his colleagues are determined to implement new head-protection measures from next year.

    Cockpit safety has become one of the key issues in F1 over the last 18 months following the deaths of Jules Bianchi, who suffered severe head injuries in a crash at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix, and Justin Wilson, whose helmet was struck by debris in an IndyCar race at the Pocono circuit.

    Those incidents, in addition to the near-misses of Felipe Massa (Hungary 2009), Michael Schumacher (Abu Dhabi 2010) and Kimi Raikkonen (Austria 2015), have led to increased calls to changes around the cockpit area.

    Last August, two-time world champions Mercedes, per the official F1 website, released an animation video featuring a potential solution, and the "halo" concept has received the support of the drivers' union, per BBC Sport's Andrew Benson.

    Claiming the drivers have fully supported the "swift implementation" of increased head protection, Wurz told the same source: 

    The research the FIA experts have done is very thorough and the process has brought forward a clear solution.

    Now the drivers feel it's time to implement the extra protection at the latest in 2017. 

    Obviously structural changes are required to the chassis but, with almost a one-year lead time, I don't see any technical person speaking against such substantial safety improvements, especially given the last big accidents in open-wheel racing involved head injuries.

    So all the drivers, and I, hope that passing the additional head protection will be a formality.

    Wurz added the drivers are also eager for F1 ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone to pressurise Pirelli into producing tyres that will allow them to "push and extract everything possible from these extraordinary race cars again."

Red Bull Prevented Daniel Ricciardo Joining Nico Hulkenberg at Le Mans 24 Hours

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    Daniel Ricciardo has revealed he was tempted to race in last year's Le Mans 24 Hours, but Red Bull Racing blocked him from participating in the endurance event.

    Although most racing drivers aspire to compete in various motorsport categories, teams are generally reluctant to allow them to appear in different disciplines, especially after Robert Kubica's rally crash ended his Formula One career in February 2011.

    In late 2014, however, Force India bucked the trend by allowing Nico Hulkenberg to join Porsche's assault at the Circuit de la Sarthe, with the German—alongside co-drivers Nick Tandy and Earl Bamber—becoming the first active F1 driver to win Le Mans since Johnny Herbert in 1991.

    His success was regarded as a victory for motorsport, with a number of F1 drivers—including Ricciardo, Fernando Alonso, Pastor Maldonado and four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel—praising Hulkenberg and outlining their own ambitions to race at Le Mans, per Sky Sports' Pete Gill.

    Ricciardo told the same source that he watched "about 18 hours" of the race, but he has now revealed he could have joined Hulkenberg on the track.

    The three-time grand prix winner told Australian magazine Auto Action (h/t Andrew Lewin of F1i.com) that he was in line to participate at Le Mans before Red Bull—in the midst of their first winless season since 2008—stating: 

    Le Mans would be cool. To be honest, I wanted to do it last year.

    There was maybe some opportunities to do it last year, but it was a bit too much with everything going on and the team preferred me to just focus on Formula One. It makes sense for now.

    I guess the beauty of Le Mans is it can happen 10 years from now. It doesn’t need to be done today. 

    Obviously Hulkenberg went and did it and won. So that can happen. I would love to have done it.

    F1 drivers will be prevented from competing at Le Mans in 2016, with the endurance race clashing with the European Grand Prix in Baku, Azerbaijan. The organisers had hoped to avoid the two events clashing, but Le Mans is due to start just as F1 qualifying begins, with the race scheduled to end just as the grand prix starts.

    Meanwhile, Red Bull will hold a 2016 livery launch at a London-based event on February 17, per Motorsport.com's Jonathan Noble, five days ahead of the first of two pre-season tests at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.