Features - Straight Talk
OCTOBER 1, 2015
A matter of trust
BY LUIS VASCONCELOS
When Fernando Alonso compared his McLaren's Honda V6 to a GP2 engine, frustrated for being so easily overtaken by Marcus Ericsson and Max Verstappen on the run down to Suzuka's first corner, the Japanese company's pride took a big hit. Not only were Alonso's comments broadcast worldwide for FOM decided to air them soon after they were made, but they were shouted at Honda's own circuit, adding insult to injury.
For quite a while there has been criticism from the McLaren drivers towards Honda's lack of ability to improve their Power Unit in a significant manner, and in Suzuka it was, again, made clear that all Honda has been able to do is keep the gap to the front of the grid, instead of reducing it significantly, as it would be reasonable to expect from a company that started the season so far behind their rivals.
Let's take away what happened in Melbourne, as that was a particularly embarrassing debut for McLaren Honda, and look at the gaps between the faster of the MP4/30 drivers and the leaders in qualifying, to demonstrate this point. In Malaysia none of the McLaren-Honda got past Q1 and Jenson Button (17th fastest) was nearly 2.4s behind pace setter Lewis Hamilton. In China, two weeks later, the gap was down to 1.77s and in Bahrain, one week later, up again to 2.3s, this marking the first occasion in which one of the team's drivers actually made it into Q2.
Last Saturday, in Suzuka, only Alonso made it into the second qualifying session, after being 2.6s slower than Hamilton in Q1, and was slowest of those who set a time in Q2, even after cutting the gap to the faster driver to 2.15s. See, not much different from what was happening more than five months ago, in spite of the massive amount of work done by McLaren and Honda.
It's easy to understand, then, why Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button are getting so frustrated. The Spaniard has been very careful with the way he has criticised Honda in public, only occasionally going beyond what the team would like him to say but once in the car, with his competitive instincts taking over, he's said a few harsh things to the team and about the engine, since his shouting match with his race engineer in Montreal, after being told once too many to save fuel in the early stages of the Canadian Grand Prix.
As for Jenson Button, listen to him as he comes out of his car after another disappointing qualifying session or race and it's audible how frustrated he is; then, the rest of the body language just confirms that impression. Still, he's agreed to stay for another year at McLaren-Honda, we learned today, after winning a arm-wrestling contest with Ron Dennis over what his salary is going to be in 2016, so he must see some light at the end of the tunnel.
It's clear that Honda underestimated the task ahead when the Japanese company accepted McLaren's challenge to start competing this year, when a wiser decision would have been to postpone the company's return to Formula One until 2016, after doing enough testing to make sure the Power Units would be fully reliable and reasonably competitive next year, without going through this public humiliation, week in and week out.
But I have no doubts Honda has the technology, the budget and the people to solve all the problems that have hampered their efforts and turn the situation around. With time and good collaboration from McLaren, this partnership can move closer to the front of the field, although I have to admit I cannot see McLaren-Honda beating Mercedes for at least another two years, such is the gap between the two teams.
But for a partnership at this level to work, there has to be a mutual trust that seems to have vanished from the McLaren-Honda camp. Every time Honda mentions there's more power coming out of its Power Units, even the drivers have their doubts and say, even before trying the evolutions, it's better to wait and see if there's really more power for that particular weekend.
But it's not only McLaren that doesn't trust Honda anymore; in Suzuka, Yasuhisa Arai made it very clear Honda was expecting a lot more from McLaren and insisted the blame for the lack of results should be shared by the two partners.
Arai also resented the grilling he was taking from the British press during the Italian Grand Prix weekend, hinting he felt "the other side" of the partnership had masterminded that particular press meeting. This came just days after McLaren had sent an official letter to Honda asking for Arai to be replaced but, according to Japanese sources, the car company replied swiftly, making it clear Arai-san was not to be replaced and, in any case, whoever was running the Formula One program would be following exactly the same procedures!
Formula One is as much about technology as it is about human relations. You can have the best Technical Director and the best driver in the same team, but if they hate each other's guts or don't trust each other they're not going to win many races.
I have no grounds to doubt Mr. Arai's capabilities to run Honda's Formula One program. Maybe he's their best man for the job, maybe he isn't - only Honda insiders would know. But being so openly clear the top people at McLaren and their two World Champion drivers, Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button, don't believe he's capable of doing any better than he's currently doing, I think there's only one honourable way of giving McLaren-Honda a chance to succeed in the near future and that is Yasuhisa Arai accepting he has to go, to be replaced by another Honda engineer.
His successor, whoever that might be, would be given the chance to start from zero and gain the confidence of Honda's partner during the 2016 season. Honda deserves the chance to show its potential in Formula One and pride shouldn't stand in the way of a company's success.