Honda were hoping for a heroes’ homecoming when they returned to their very own track in preparation for Sunday’s Japanese Grand Prix. Instead, it would have been more appropriate if their Formula One operation had worn blankets over their heads and sneaked in the back entrance as they made their way to the circuit.
Their reunion with McLaren this year was always going to be difficult but no one expected these two great names to produce something that seems to blow up more often than a circus clown’s car.
It has been less a failure than a humiliation, with the McLaren-Honda project flatlining alongside Manor at the bottom of the world championship standings. They have taken 17 points from 13 races and getting out of Q1 on a Saturday afternoon – Jenson Button failed again on Saturday – has been an achievement in itself.
The Honda engine has been so bad that it has disguised a rather ordinary McLaren chassis. But of the two it is Honda that is the stinker.
At its simplest, Honda have been unable to get the turbo side of the engine to work. They knew they needed something revolutionary to compete with Mercedes, a very different and tightly packaged unit, but the revolution has been easily put down. Also, there has not been enough testing and when Honda have brought updates they have been penalised.
Honda’s record of six championships with McLaren came between 1986‑91, when the driving skills of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost and a magnificent McLaren car were cornerstones of their success. In the years since they first entered F1 in 1964, they have experienced failure before, but nothing quite like this.
The former team owner Flavio Briatore, who is now manager of the McLaren driver Fernando Alonso, described their partnership with Honda as a disaster, forcing the Spaniard to make a fresh statement of loyalty.
“I can tell you that I will go nowhere else. I trust the project,” Alonso said “McLaren and Honda, with the potential they both have, will win again. They are among the best in the business. This is a difficult time, and the starting point was quite low. But we are making progress as fast as we can.”
He added: “We are here to win and fight for championships. We are not winning and I am not too happy qualifying 14th after one of the best laps I’ve done at Suzuka. But we just have to make this tough time as short as possible.”
The Spaniard had just failed to make it to Q3, where Nico Rosberg beat Lewis Hamilton to pole. But Alonso said that McLaren-Honda’s mileage this season was the same as that of Mercedes going into the first race of the season in Australia in March and while Mercedes also supply Williams, Force India and Lotus, Honda have only McLaren to work with. Who else would have them?
Alonso did not expect much progress this season. “It’s going to be difficult to see big progress. The limitations we have are quite clear and it requires some time, this winter, to make some real progress. We are using the rest of the season for set-up directions for next year, along with some aero and power improvements.”
Speculation that Honda, second only to Toyota among car makers in Japan, are considering quitting is wide of the mark, even though there will be a lot more pain next year. They are so far behind that they cannot hope to be competitive until the end of 2016, or even 2017, when new regulations will change the scene for everyone.
For Honda, the development work associated with F1 is more important than it is for other engine suppliers. They have walked out on the sport three times, in the 60s, 90s and, last time, in 2008, when hit by the recession. Honda cannot do that again, at least not this soon having announced their return to the sport in 2013 and started providing power units for McLaren this year. Also, Japan is still associated with a shame culture, or haji, where honour is important and making mistakes difficult to concede. That is why the recent hostile questioning of the head of Honda’s motorsport operation, Yasuhisa Arai, led to some soul searching at the company.
It also explains why McLaren, who had to move away from Mercedes, have not been critical of Honda, at least in public, even though the relationship is strained. Arai said: “It’s great to be back home, our home. Suzuka is such a special place for us and for Honda’s 200,000 employees and associates and fans. It is a little bit big pressure I have got.”