Formula 1's Latest Rumours, Talk: McLaren-Honda's Jenson Button, Manor and More

Oliver Harden@@OllieHardenFeatured ColumnistFebruary 22, 2016

Formula 1's Latest Rumours, Talk: McLaren-Honda's Jenson Button, Manor and More

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    The 2016 Formula One season kicked off bright and early on Monday morning, when the first of two pre-season tests began at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.

    Several drivers headed on to the track to complete their first laps of the year and among them, thankfully, was Jenson Button, behind the wheel of McLaren-Honda's new MP4-31 car. 

    Pre-season testing set the tone for McLaren's worst season in 35 years in 2015, with Button and team-mate Fernando Alonso wasting time in the garage as their rivals worked on anything from system checks to setup.

    And Button, who completed a promising 35 laps in the morning session, has explained why McLaren are hopeful of returning to form in 2016.

    Another team hoping for bigger and better things this year are Manor, who were among a number of outfits to launch their new car on the opening morning of the test.

    The team have claimed just one points finish in six seasons, but the team's technical director has revealed why the MTR05 car is already their best yet.

    Pascal Wehrlein and Rio Haryanto will have the pleasure of driving the MTR05 in this season's 21 races, but one man who was denied that privilege is Will Stevens.

    The British driver had been hugely confident of keeping his place at Manor following a steady 2015 campaign, so the signing of Haryanto may have come as a shock.

    But despite facing the prospect of being exiled to IndyCar, Stevens has insisted he is not yet finished in F1 and is targeting a return in the future.

    Bernie Ecclestone, meanwhile, seems all but finished with F1 after admitting the sport is currently in extremely poor condition. In his efforts to make F1 fashionable again, the ringmaster has outlined his plans to change the qualifying format in the coming years.

    It remains to be seen whether those alterations will be implemented for 2017, but one rule change almost certain to be forced through in time for next year is the "halo" concept, which is part of a push for cockpit safety.

    The proposal, however, isn't universally popular, with Daniel Ricciardo and Nico Hulkenberg debating the pros and cons of increased safety measures.

    Here's this week's roundup.

Jenson Button Excited by McLaren-Honda MP4-31

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    Jenson Button has spoken of how proud he is of his McLaren-Honda colleagues following the unveiling of the MP4-31, the team's 2016 car.

    McLaren endured their worst season in 35 years in 2015 as Button and team-mate Fernando Alonso scored just 27 points between them, with the Woking-based outfit finishing second-bottom in the constructors' championship.

    However, having had around three months to address the shortcomings of the MP4-30 car, which centered around Honda's uncompetitive V6 turbo power unit, McLaren are expected to mount a recovery this season with the MP4-31.

    As operations director Simon Roberts told the team's official website, McLaren staff sacrificed their Christmas holidays to prepare the new car.

    And Button, who took McLaren's last race win at the 2012 Brazilian Grand Prix, is confident their effort will be translated into lap time this season, telling the McLaren F1 website:

    All Formula 1 drivers need a winter break, but I’m massively excited to get started on the 2016 season now, and I have to say the brand-new McLaren-Honda MP4-31 really looks the part.

    Moreover, having spent quite a bit of time at the McLaren Technology Centre recently, I can tell you that there’s a huge amount of palpable positive energy there at the moment, despite the challenging yet steep learning curve we all travelled along in 2015. 

    In fact, the immense amount of sheer hard work that has gone into the development of the MP4-31 over the winter makes me immensely proud, and consequently I go into the new season with even more motivation and belief. 

    Despite the ups and downs we saw last year, there were steady improvements all year long, and that gives us confidence in the design direction we’re taking. There are a lot of positives we can build on, and a strong platform to take forward.

    Per the same source, McLaren chairman Ron Dennis claimed the team "remain united" in their "shared ambition" to win, but will "make no predictions as to when those wins will come" after their humbling 2015 campaign.

Manor Hail Mercedes-Powered MRT05 as the Best Car Yet

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    John McQuilliam, the Manor Racing technical director, has claimed the new MRT05 chassis is the "best car" the team have built to date.

    The team who began life as Virgin Racing will start their seventh season in Formula One in 2016, and ahead of the first of two pre-season tests, they unveiled the MRT05—their first all-new car in two years.

    The late Jules Bianchi's ninth-placed finish in the 2014 Monaco Grand Prix remains the team's only top-10 result since 2010. But after running with a 2014-specification chassis-engine package in 2015, Manor are hopeful of scoring points on a more regular basis this season.

    Despite having the most inexperienced driver lineup on the grid in Pascal Wehrlein and Rio Haryanto, Manor will run with Mercedes engines and Williams components in 2016, when the team will be under new management following a major restructuring process, which saw Dave Ryan, Pat Fry and Nikolas Tombazis arrive.

    And before the MRT05 even hit the track at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, McQuilliam was convinced that the car was Manor's best yet, telling the team's official Facebook page

    Even at this early stage of the game, we can easily say this is the best car we’ve ever launched. Certainly the most developed, the most ambitious and the most aggressive. The overall package is a very significant step forward, not just from last year, but from any of the cars from our stable.

    When asked what makes the new car "so special," he told the same source:

    Well, for starters, it’s all new. As it should be of course, but we had to "make do" last year and that’s not what we’re here for. We build fast race cars for a living and it’s great to get back to doing what we love. We’re also pretty good at it, when we have the right tools for the job. So that in itself is quite special. Better still, the MRT05 is a contender. We really believe that. The design team have focused almost exclusively on it since the middle of last season and it’s just a whole different ball game to any of its predecessors. We haven’t left any performance on the table and right now I can say there’s not a single part of the car we’d have designed differently.

    Per the same source, McQuilliam added that the MTR05 features as many as 3393 new parts.

Will Stevens Refusing to Give Up on F1 Despite Manor Departure

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    Will Stevens has insisted he is determined to return to Formula One in the future after missing out on a place on the 2016 grid.

    The British driver participated in every race for Manor during the 2015 season having provided the perennial backmarkers with "around £6 million" in sponsorship funds, per the Telegraph's Daniel Johnson.

    Despite failing to score a point due to the team's lack of competitiveness—the 24-year-old finished no higher than 13th last season—Stevens had been expected to continue with Manor in 2016, telling Motorsport.com's Pablo Elizalde how he was "100 per cent confident" of retaining his seat last December.

    Manor's agreement to use Mercedes power units this year, however, saw them sign reigning DTM champion Wehrlein in mid-February, with the team recently finalising their driver lineup by completing the signing of GP2 race winner Haryanto.

    The signing of Haryanto, who brings "at least £10 million in sponsorship" due to backing from the Indonesian state oil company, according to Johnson, has left Stevens in the wilderness for 2016.

    And while the Essex-born driver has suggested he may consider a switch to IndyCar, Stevens is adamant that he is not yet finished with F1, telling Racer's Marshall Pruett

    At the moment, we're exploring all avenues. I spend a lot of time in the States, know quite a few people there, so IndyCar is an option. We're looking at a lot of things, and it's no secret Formula 1 is not an option right now. So we're trying to stay open and look at the best avenue for career longevity.

    If I'm totally honest, we're not giving up on F1, for sure. Over the next few years, there's going to be a lot of people coming out—retiring from the sport and going off to do other things, so we're still confident the people I've got behind me will want to look at it again in 2017.

    But I need to do something to keep me racing. I don't want to sit around and do nothing. At the moment I don't know what I'll be doing, but I'll be doing something.

    Like Stevens, Alexander Rossi also saw his F1 prospects evaporate with the signing of Haryanto.

    But the American, who competed in five races for the team in 2015, has told Sky Sports' Brian Dodds how his relationship with Manor is still "very strong," confirming he wants to " stay involved with the team" and "keep (his) foot in the door."

Bernie Ecclestone Admits F1 Is 'The Worst It Has Ever Been' as Testing Begins

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    Bernie Ecclestone has bemoaned the state of Formula One, claiming the sport is currently in the worst condition it has ever been.

    The 85-year-old has been a frequent critic of the greener, hybrid power units since the V6 turbo regulations were implemented at the beginning of 2014, which coincided with the rise to prominence of the Mercedes team.

    The Brackley-based outfit have dominated the last two seasons, winning 32 of the last 38 grands prix with Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton, who now stands as a three-time world champion.

    As the first of two pre-season tests got underway at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya ahead of the 2016 campaign, when Mercedes are once again expected to be the team to beat, Ecclestone has admitted even he wouldn't pay to watch modern-day F1.

    And he has blamed the supposed  short-term, selfish approaches adopted by many paddock figures as the reason for F1's decline, telling the Daily Mail's Jonathan McEvoy

    I think I can say that I'm a bit of an exception in Formula One today—I have a vested interest. I want to do what is best for Formula One.

    I don't need the job. I don't need the money. Most of the participants are only thinking about what's good for them in the short term. Long term for most of those people is two or three races. The result is that Formula One is the worst it has ever been. I wouldn't spend my money to take my family to watch a race. No way.

    What's the point when you pretty much know—and the bookmakers know, and they're not stupid—that Lewis Hamilton will probably put the car on pole and more likely than not win the race, and the other Mercedes will be on the podium?

    As well as criticising FIA president Jean Todt, reiterating his admiration for Russian president Vladimir Putin and discussing the health of Michael Schumacher among other things, Ecclestone told the same source of his desire to improve the racing by tweaking the qualifying system.

    Despite fears that changes to qualifying—including proposals such as reverse grids, whereby the fastest driver would start the race from the rear of the field—could muddy the history books, Ecclestone has suggested tweaks could be on the horizon, adding:

    We need more competitive racing. I would keep qualifying as it is. The guy who is quickest would still have his number of poles recorded for history. But then he could start, say, 10th based on his pole and where he stands in the championship. We are looking at exactly how we could do it.

    The guy who is third fastest in qualifying would start, say seventh or eighth. That is better than totally reversed grids because all you get with them is the man at the back getting past the slower guys at the start of the race. This way makes it competitive between guys of similar speed. It won't be easy to get past people.

    The big thing is that it would create debate. I would say, 'I think the pole man will win for this reason or that.' You say, 'No, I think so-and-so will win because...' That's what we need. I don't know if we can get it through in time. We'll see.

    In July 2015, the Formula One Strategy Group (via the FIA's official website) confirmed it was considering "several exciting and innovative changes to the qualifying and race weekend formats" with a view to a 2016 introduction.

    That deadline came and went without any developments, but those changes may be implemented in time for 2017, when major regulation changes are set to make the cars around five seconds per lap faster.

Nico Hulkenberg, Daniel Ricciardo Disagree in Closed-Cockpit Debate

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    Nico Hulkenberg, the Force India driver, has questioned the need for increased head protection in Formula One, while Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo has spoken in support of improvements in cockpit safety.

    Following the deaths of Jules Bianchi and IndyCar racer Justin Wilson in 2015, F1 cars are set to be fitted with the "halo" concept in 2017 to guard against flying debris.

    Alexander Wurz, the chairman of the Grand Prix Drivers' Association, recently told BBC Sport's Andrew Benson that the drivers were unanimously in favour of the "swift implementation" of increased safety measures, but it appears that at least one isn't convinced by the proposal.

    As the winner of the Le Mans 24 Hours sportscar event in 2015, Hulkenberg has experience in both open and closed-cockpit cars, and the German has told Motorsport.com's Jonathan Noble of his "personal" opinion that single-seater cars "should be open."

    Hulkenberg's view, however, has been countered by Ricciardo, who believes F1 must disregard tradition and take action to prevent more serious injuries.

    And the three-time race winner is confident the halo design will, like most other regulation changes, eventually be accepted by the sport's onlookers, telling the same source:

    There has been quite a lot of dialogue, especially among GPDA, and lots of emails going back and forth.

    However it is styled or designed, just to have that extra little bit, our head is the only vulnerable bit.

    With Jules and then Justin, it is silly now—a bit of tradition for what in the end?

    F1 has seen a lot of changes over time, in 2009 the cars looked pretty ugly at first and everyone got used to it and now they are normal.

    If it is the halo or something similar, I think within a race or two people will start to think it looks normal.

    Cockpit sides were raised in 2008 in a direct response to Wurz's collision with David Coulthard in the previous year's Australian Grand Prix—which saw the Red Bull car narrowly miss the Austrian's crash helmet—and the height has increased further on the new-for-2016 cars.

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