Honda’s F1 comeback
…and its significance for the sport as a whole. By Adam Cooper
The return of the McLaren Honda partnership in 2015 is a huge boost for F1 at a time when the sport is mired in uncertainties about the future — both in terms of many teams’ financial health and the overall viability of the new turbo formula.
Attracting fresh manufacturers was one of the key reasons behind the switch to the V6 turbo and the extra emphasis placed on energy recovery systems. FIA president Jean Todt will doubtless feel vindicated that at least one big name has responded.
It’s not just about the obvious benefits of McLaren and Honda recreating their illustrious partnership. With former Toyota and Sauber racer Kamui Kobayashi on the sidelines, interest in the sport in Japan has inevitably suffered. Honda’s return will make a massive difference in a key market and benefit the sport as a whole.
When Honda pulled out of F1 at the end of 2008, citing economic reasons, it was made clear that it would not be back. A change of management and a healthier financial situation has made the difference, and the appeal of the new technology — for a company that has always valued F1 as a training ground for engineers — was too great to ignore.
It’s also a marketing dream — and not just because of the Ayrton Senna associations. Honda has a lot of time for Jenson Button, with whom it worked from 2003-2008, and since then the Brit’s profile in Japan has rocketed thanks to his relationship with model Jessica Michibata. The fact that the company is currently building a huge plant in Mexico and expanding in Latin America also gels perfectly with the presence of Sergio Perez.
For McLaren, an organisation that rightly celebrates its heritage, it’s a chance to recreate some of the magic of the Senna/Prost era. Partners such as Kenwood, Boss and TAG Heuer have kept faith since the Honda days and a new title sponsor, to replace the departing Vodafone, should be announced in December. The first signs of Telmex-related branding were seen on the cars in Spain and, with the added support of Honda, the team is in a healthy state.
Most importantly, McLaren will become a proper works-backed team again, having slipped into the role of paying customer at Mercedes, competing against the official factory effort. For McLaren that was not sustainable heading into the turbo era.
However, the two parties now face an awkward single season together in 2014. McLaren has promised Mercedes that its IP will not be compromised, but nevertheless the team will learn everything there is to know about the new engines and systems while working quietly with Honda in the background. The big unknown is the potential of Honda’s powertrain package. The company has massive R&D resources, but does it really have the ability to set the technological pace, as it did more than two decades ago?
For all the glorious history, Honda was conspicuously unsuccessful in its most recent incarnation as owner of a works team. And while it is now focusing solely on engineering there is no escaping the fact that the V10 last seen in 2008 was far from the best on the grid. It’s widely believed that Honda threw away the 2009 title when it withdrew, but former Brawn GP insiders admitted that, without the late switch to Mercedes power, the car that became the BGP001 would not have been quite so competitive.
The turbo engines and associated systems are new for everyone, but Honda might suffer from what will by 2015 be a six-year absence. Relative to its three rivals it obviously has an extra year for development, but long lead times mean that it will have to firm up many key parameters even before rival engines race for the first time in March 2014, so the opportunity to respond will be limited.
A key question is who else will get a Honda supply? McLaren’s arrangement is not exclusive and FIA rules ensure that it cannot be. Several teams have not yet firmed up deals for the turbo era, notably current Renault customers Williams and Lotus. Like McLaren, however, any Honda candidate would require an interim arrangement elsewhere for 2014 — possibly 2015 as well — and securing such a deal might not be so easy.
Raikkonen’s title prospects
Over the first few races of the season Kimi Raikkonen and Lotus established themselves as serious contenders for the 2013 World Championship. The Finn remained in mathematical contention until late last season, too, but this time he has a much stronger package.
But can he really pull off an improbable success?
Raikkonen’s prospects were not helped just before the Spanish GP, when it was confirmed that technical director James Allison, one of the team’s key assets, was to leave for an undisclosed job elsewhere. Hi place was filled by an internal promotion for Nick Chester, but Allison’s departure leaves a hole.
Shortly after Raikkonen logged his fourth podium finish of the year, in Barcelona, Pirelli confirmed it would react to complaints about high tyre wear by changing specifications for Montreal and beyond. Inevitably that was a cause of frustration to Lotus and Ferrari, the teams that had best come to terms with the challenge provided by the 2013 rubber, but that changed again when the FIA instructed Pirelli not to make radical alterations afterall.
“Kimi is just a metronome,” team owner Gerard Lopez told Motor Sport. “He is in the hunt for sure and we want at least to finish in the top three.”
Team principal Eric Boullier is more cautious when discussing title prospects. “If we manage one podium per weekend we might have a chance to fight for the title,” he said, “but not now.
“There is an inconsistency between the teams, but we are the most consistent. Last year we finished third because we were consistent and this year we are consistent and also performing better because we are finishing on the podium in almost every race. This is why we built our car like this, to be soft on tyres. We know it’s not the fastest chassis, but it allows us to finish consistently in the points.”
If Fernando Alonso is ahead one week and Sebastian Vettel the next, so be it. The team is well aware that Raikkonen can win the title by finishing second on a regular basis. “If Kimi does that every race he will be champion,” says trackside operations director Alan Permane. “Not that we’re not trying to win, of course…”
Lowe takes up Merc role
Former McClaren technical director Paddy Lowe will start work at Mercedes on June 3, further strengthening the Stuttgart-owned team’s chances of getting its sums right as the sport heads into the turbo era.
Lowe was originally contracted to McLaren until the end of this year and had recently been going through the motions with the Woking team as he worked out his gardening leave. However, the two parties were able to come to an arrangement that allows him to start early in his newly created role as executive director (technical).
Crucially for Mercedes, the timing allows Lowe (with Jenson Button, below) to make a major contribution to the 2014 turbo project, which is being managed by Geoff Willis, his former Williams colleague and erstwhile technical director of BAR-Honda.
Mercedes stresses that, for the time being at least, Ross Brawn retains his team principal role and is thus in charge of all matters sporting and technical.
Aside from Willis and Brawn, Mercedes already employs Bob Bell and Aldo Costa, former technical directors of Renault and Ferrari respectively. Brawn has stressed that the team’s recruitment drive was not just about the short-term challenge of preparing for 2014 while racing a very different car in 2013.
“It is no secret that every team is facing a significant balancing act between this year and next,” he said. “But it is perhaps less obvious that we will also see major changes for the 2015 and 2016 seasons, as development progresses with the new generation of car design and power unit.”
McClaren – McLaren brought a major update to Barcelona, including a new front wing and revised sidepod fronts. In contrast to rivals, the wing is far simpler, with new winglets and vanes to redirect flow around the tyres. To aid Coanda exhaust set-up, sidepod fronts have new vanes and fins, helping airflow to aim the exhaust towards the diffuser for more consistent downforce.
Toro Rosso – For 2013 Toro Rosso moved away from aggressively undercut sidepods and went for a more conventional set-up. This direction altered slightly with the arrival of new sidepods in Spain. Somewhat like Red Bull’s tunnelled sidepod, air at the sidepod’s tail is fed into a channel to avoid diverting exhaust plume from the diffuser. Instead of a tunnel the sidepod has a raised, flat-bottomed end.
Caterham – Having run an evolution of its 2012 car in the opening four races, Caterham brought a full 2013 package to Catalunya, with new nose, front/rear wings and sidepods. The most obvious change is a vanity panel added to the same nose cone; while it improves the aesthetics of the stepped nose, it must also produce an aero benefit to offset the new panel’s weight. A new front wing has more conventional flaps and cascades. These upgrades brought Caterham a real step-change in pace.