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15 Mar 2015

We've all been privy to the adulation that McLaren and Ron Dennis in particular heaped on Honda on the run up to the 2015 season.  Putting on the rose tinted glasses and remembering the success both enjoyed just a few decades ago is one thing, but as we know with Formula One, it's about the here and the now.  The writing was on the wall in pre-season testing when the pairing found themselves in an even worse situation than Red Bull had last season.  Red Bull's woes were ones they had faced for most of their life in Formula One, down on power (remember how they had the homologation rules tweaked to get an increase in power with their V8? or when they were allowed more of a concession in terms of off throttle blowing for 'reliability' or how we constantly heard they were 50bhp down on their rivals, even though they'll openly admit their KERS package was a weak link in that chain) and overheating (the consequence of allowing Newey to shrink wrap the car, leaving no contingency, as that would forsake the aerodynamic principles of his design.

McLaren's pursuit of a new engine supplier was born out of the break down of relationship between Mercedes and McLaren, driven by McLaren's expansion into the automotive industry.  As we know the company had a small foray in that area with the McLaren F1 in the 90's, producing just over 100 cars.  This time however it was to be a full scale production assault, transforming McLaren into a supercar manufacturer in its own right.  The news did not go down well with Mercedes for whom McLaren had been providing technical support and cross-brand association on models like the SLR.
Mercedes had financial interest in the McLaren racing team as the two had enjoyed success throughout their 19 year collaboration, having a 40% share holding from 2000.  As the McLaren plan to enter the automotive market started to flourish in 2009, Mercedes decided it was time the two should part ways.  By 2010 Mercedes stake in McLaren was down to 11% and the purchase of BrawnGP meant that Mercedes now had their own 'works' team.  Unable to swallow the thought of being a 'customer' and having to pay for their engine supply a new deal was saught.  Several avenues were investigated but with costs to R&D and produce the powerunits a major factor McLaren knew they needed to be a defacto 'works' entity, something that a collaboration with Honda would allow. Honda may have left the sport under a cloud in 2008 but that doesn't mean they just shut up shop, with a small focus group retained to oversee rule changes, with the possibility of a return at some stage.

So should we be crying over McLaren's spilt milk?
No, not as far as I'm concerned, just as most of the others had teething issues last season, they now find themselves in a similar predicament.  The problems they are facing however are ridiculous when you consider Honda's standing and pedigree.  They've seemingly been far too aggressive in their design, forsaking reliability for performance.  Lest we forget that there needs to be a synergy between all of the components that make up the architecture of the powerunits (Internal Combustion Engine (I.C.E), MGU-H, MGU-K, Turbo, ES and Control Electronics), if one of these isn't performing as expected it will be to the detriment of the others.  The ERS has to perform in a way that not only responds to the drivers inputs but to each others demands otherwise energy recovery and release is compromised (if you're still confused by how ERS works or have taken the broadcasters at their word please read this: The 33.33 second misnomer).

The assertion that McLaren/Honda have their PU turned down for reliability reasons (see video below at around 3:05) may prove to be a shrewd decision as they progress through the early stages of the season. However, it does mean that performance is also seriously curtailed, with the ERS system unable to provide the kind of assistance that's desired as each component works in tandem with the next.  It is however a pragmatic approach to the PU usage scale for the season, the problems they're encountering and the way in which the remaining tokens can be spent.

So what is the problem with the Honda PU?  In summary, plenty.  That's not to say that this season is a write off but what it does mean is that they are facing a long season, that will likely see this sleeping giants patients tested.  As Ron tries to swerve Ted's questions in the interview he tries to give away as little as possible but it is clear both parties understand just how big a challenge they face.

The complexities of these powerunits is still overlooked and Honda's plight isn't helped by the seemingly strange gestation period they took to produce the PU's.  As the other manufacturers and teams have already found having the PU's on dyno's is one thing, having them in the car is a totally different ball game (Lest we forget the debacle at the start of last season when Toro Rosso used the AVL rolling road facilities in Graz - Tech rebuttal Red Bull & STR's not so secret test).  There is nothing like real world running and mileage when it comes to getting viable data, something McLaren/Honda have had neither of in the run up to 2015.  However, I wonder whether Honda should take a leaf out of Toro Rosso's book (if they haven't already) and produce a chassis dyno to assist in replicating the gremlins they have encountered thus far.

We must also remember that Honda have entered the sport a year after the powerunit revolution, putting them behind a year in terms of direct learning.  Of course they had their engineers implanted within the ranks of the McLaren organization, gleaning information from the Mercedes package they had installed last year.  However, the MP4-29 was not a fantastic car, conservative at best and when compared to McLaren's usual high in-season development conversely the team opted to restrain from that path.  You could argue this has helped with the development of the MP4-30 as it is at the other end of the spectrum, tightly packaged with less margin for error.

In 2015 the rules have also permitted the return of variable inlets, placing another technical hurdle in Honda's path.  It's not new technology and actually went out of F1 with the V10's, it's return however is a smart move by the FIA, as it not only provides a way of increasing performance over a wider rpm range but also increases fuel efficiency.  There are several ways to produce a VLIM (Variable Length Inlet Manifold) which all of course have their own positives and negatives (have a read of this if you're interested, as it offers a reasonable overview -, as images of the Honda powerunit are sparse I'm yet to assert which type they're using.  As always it appears that the other manufacturers have all taken various options at this stage too.

In summary the expansion and contraction of the inlets (however it is conducted) helps to smooth the way in which air is provided to the I.C.E, providing the best possible 'supercharging effect' for the given rpm.  Variable length inlets (VLI) are not usually used in combination with turbocharging as their benefit is often outweighed by the proposal of 'charging' the air in the first place.  However, with emphasis now placed on fuel efficiency the VLI's do offer the manufacturers additional scope in terms of both low and high end power distribution whilst saving fuel too.

At this juncture I must re-iterate something I have talked about before, the token system and Honda's re-entry into the sport.  Some consider it a problem that Honda were not given the full 32 token allocation for the season.  However, many of the tokens spent by the other three manufacturers before the 2015 season commenced will have been used to introduce VLI's, whilst other tokens will have been spent on areas that receive benefits from their installation.  With Honda starting afresh they would have started with a VLI baseline and the opportunity to make mass changes that the others simply couldn't afford to make, giving them an unfair advantage.  The FIA made a fair and equitable decision in my opinion, as the token system has already been unfairly destroyed by Renault and Ferrari's assertion that tokens be spent throughout the season.

Something I haven't discussed in a little while and is poignant in this case is: cylinder deactivation (CD).  It was clear to me from the limited track running that McLaren did whilst I was at the last pre-season test that there is an audible difference to the MP4-30 when compared to the rest of the field, especially off throttle.  The almost machine gun sound on limited throttle application seemed to highlight how much focus had been shifted toward cylinder deactivation, inline with the other systems at play.  All of the teams will be using CD to enhance their fuel consumption and power output but I'd suggest that Honda may be making more effort with this, which is having an impact on how the other systems operate too.  Let's work on a scenario to understand exactly the kind of thing I'm talking about:

Entering a slow corner the driver has applied the brakes at which point the VLI's will be at their longest/largest state, the MGU-K will be harvesting energy, passing this directly to the MGU-H (missing out the ES, which is more efficient and doesn't eat into the 4MJ the MGU-K can 'spend' per lap) which in turn keeps the Turbo spooled.  (At this stage the wastegate(s) may also be needed to control boost level)
As the driver is fully off the throttle the I.C.E is now running on only 3 cylinders, increasing fuel efficiency as the 3 cylinders that have been shut down don't have fuel injected to them.  As the driver transitions to light throttle input at the corners apex the MGU-K continues to harvest energy, energy is still passed to the MGU-H/Turbo to keep the turbo spooled.
As the driver increases his throttle input down the straight all cylinders come online, the VLI's will start to shorten/contract, the MGU-H will now be harvesting energy from the Turbo which is likely producing a little too much boost and pass it to the MGU-K, supported by energy from the ES.

As we can see (and that was a very basic explanation of what is going on) they (each of the PU components) are sub systems that require control, for which the driver isn't aware of.  It is down to the team, manufacturer and their engineers to map these requirements in such a way that they all work harmoniously, autonomously and by-and-large without the driver realising what is happening.  This is where Honda and McLaren are struggling (they're not on their own, note Daniel Ricciardo and Red Bull comments about drive-ability in Australia too) but we are talking about processes that happen in milliseconds, in a harsh environment (I think many people forget these are race cars, which are both hot and extremely rigid) and in ever changing circumstances (application of brakes and throttle).

The last thing I want to talk about is fuel, with McLaren having been provided lubricants by Mobil1 for a long time.  Fuel is an important performance differentiator with these new powerunits, something the teams began to understand early on last season.  Whilst Mercedes and Petronas (also provided fuel to Williams and Force India) had clearly worked closely on their blends both Shell (Ferrari, Sauber and Marussia) and Total (Red Bull, Lotus & Caterham) were a step behind, with both working tirelessly throughout the season to make up the deficit.  Fuel has always been a playground for performance with new fuel blends used all the time, however it appears that the switch to turbocharged power had been a little underestimated by some.  I hope therefore that the partnerships forged by McLaren, Honda and Mobil1 have led to gains for these giants too, especially as there is clearly scope for performance to be garnered in this area.

So are McLaren done for?
No, not by a long stretch, but it is going to take some time to recover.  Especially as making changes that involve using tokens either means waiting for 4-5 races, owing to the 4 powerunits per season regulation, or sacrificing the element they're changing to rectify the issue.

Magnussen/Alonso will already be at least one component down going to Malaysia with their powerunit lunching itself on the way to the grid.  It looks like a turbo failing but it's anyone's guess how many things it took out with it...

The other thing to consider is that Honda can still apply changes to components, as long as they increase reliability or safety, with the former being a major problem so far for Honda.  For instance, the MGU-K seal that curtailed the teams running for much of the second test is an unreliable component and as such can be changed for a better specification.  All the manufacturers did as much last season, using Mercedes as an example, the spark plug insulator that cut short Lewis Hamilton's first race last season was rectified by Mercedes HPP by the next race.

The power of dreams? Not at the moment Honda but lets hope it doesn't turn out to be a nightmare.


  1. Great article and technical references as usual.

  2. Great article Matt.
    I've read on a few sites that Honda are currently running at 60% on their PU (Ted Kravitz mentioned the figure 50% on his race notebook). Do you think that this relates to ERS output or a combination of ERS & ICE?

    Also, do you think that the PU fitted for Alonso in Malaysia will be a higher spec. unit and could mean that JB & FA will leap-frogging each other with PU outputs throughout the season?

    1. I think those are deliberately conservative figures and smack of sensalisation, if they were down to 50-60% then they would be even slower. Unless of course they are refering to ERS in isolation. If they are down that low on power then they have some serious ponies to unleash in the future....

      The specification will be down to several considerations, what actually failed on the way to the grid (as mentioned it looked like a turbo lunching itself to me) and what did it damage with it. It also depends how far Honda are along in the gestation period to fresh updates, they may simply want to continue to run the same unit as JB in order that they understand and fix the problems at hand. With the 4 unit rule for 2015 Honda are pretty much in trouble in terms of usage going off how many they used in pre-season so I expect a fair few grid penalties come the end of the season, this is why Ron alludes to them playing it safe.

  3. I don't understand why do Honda even care about blowing up engines and 4-engine allocation. They won't be running for the title, and if one thing is true for F1, it's that no matter where you start in the field (except in Monaco), you'll still end up in a same position at the end of the race. Give or take 3 or 4 places, depending on where you started the race.

    So why don't Honda just go all out and treat each race as a testing session, instead of worrying about their engine allocation. It's better to be up to speed by mid-season and start hauling in some points, than just trundle around safely at the back of the grid. Those grid penalties are really not that important unless you are fighting for every point. Honda should just focus on their engine, and worry about point when they are up to speed.

    1. Exactly my thoughts as well.

    2. my opinion too

    3. Understand your comment..
      However I fear, as Matt pointed out in this in depth article, the PU won't last a very long time and evidence of what's wrong can be destroyed.
      So a step by step increase has been opted by Honda, resulting in a full GP distance for Jens. (Lots of data to analyse, or not?)
      Next step? A little improvement of the power output will allow them to discover more and subsequently improve the PU without (hopefully) failing.
      All of Matt's remarks are spot on.
      However the complexity of the PU working in harmony with the rest of the car makes todays F1 far to complicated and therefore very expensive.
      The whole token system that was agreed upon by all PU manufacturers, is the result of not thinking of all consequences.
      It appears that Mercedes were by far the first ones to start work on creating the PU as introduced in 2014. (4 years?)
      The token system does not allow the others to catch up in a fair way.
      If we add to the complexity of the PU, the interaction with the rest of the car and not to forget the compromise that has to be made in function of the different requirements of every track, where is that going to end up?
      Todays lack of mastering all these issues results in controversial opinions about what should be changed.
      Unfortunately up to a certain point it is also devaluating the WDC.
      Lewis and Nico at this moment have a hugue advantage with a piece of equipment superior to the other teams. That´s not good for the element ´fair play´in the F1 sport.
      Tp me it is like throwing everybody in the same water without knowing if they have already learned to swim. Some will come out without problems, some will struggle to come ashore but there might also be some that don't make it at all.

      Wim van de Kimmenade

  4. Maybe a smart move going for performance, anything that goes bang can be rectified under the reliability clause.

  5. Hi Matt,

    Thanks for answering my post about 'the 50-60%' power output. Like you, I'm inclined to think it must be mainly relating to reduced ERS output to help out their fragile MGU-K. I think Eric B stated that the ICE was also running in a 'reduced output mode', so I'm guessing that they have at least 100bhp to gain when the system is running at normal operational level.
    I understand that downforce levels & chassis balance make it hard to accurately ascertain but do you have any idea as to Honda's PU deficit (bhp) to Mercedes/Ferrari?

    1. Deficit? I'm not so sure they have one, once up and running I'm wholly convinced they'll be fairly close, now whether that's to the detriment of fuel economy we'll have to see.

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  7. 1. The drivers have stated there are no drivability issues with the car. I took that to mean the PU systems and BBW are working well. Arai's statements are that the MGUK is overheating. Is it controls or a cooling issue?

    2. When the driver is on the brakes, the MGUK has to be sending some of that regen to the ES, or you will have no ES to use. It isn't all going to the MGUH unless they are overrunning the PU at times, or "coasting", to charge the ES.

    3. Arai said before testing even started that the focus was on maximum performance, then they would chase reliability. That sounds like he was spot-on. They don't get stuck like Ferrari did last season. Although I bet Honda didn't think they'd be in this bad of a situation.

    1. 1. It's an architecture issue, I believe Honda have tried to place the MGU-K at the rear of the PU inside the gearbox housing (We'll have to see if that's true later on) which makes it difficult to cool. Look at all the pipework that RBR run from the airbox down to their Turbo-MGU-H in a similar position..

      2. Correct this is software controlled, depending on the map and SOC (state of charge) some energy will be sent direct to the MGU-H (more efficient as you don't lose energy in the AC/DC transfer) and some to the ES.

      3. I think Honda and McLaren set themselves up for several falls, but taking the pain in the short term is ok if you can rectify it going forward.

  8. There is an 'l' missing at the end of the 33.33 second misnomer link, so it doesn't work. This is the proper one:

  9. Hello , I am a Spanish fan of the formula 1. I've never seen an issue so well documented by an amateur blogs Formula One , I am surprised by the knowledge of the power units and other technical articles that are mentioned here . I just want to give my most sincere congratulations to Matthew Somerfield , and hopefully contribute to next weekend Mclaren Honda begins to climb this mountain we have in front to in the not too distant future conquer the summit . Flying .


  10. Thanks Matt, good article. It seems F1 fans have short memories some times and while Honda may have had a watching brief on F1, Ferrari Mercedes and Renault had 3 years to build their engines not 1 and a half.. Having said that there appear to be several radical things about the Honda PU and some so so. The most notable in my view is cooling or lack of it (Size Zero) this speaks of higher engine temperatures and in turn better thermal efficiency. Clearly they are nervous about heat so there are plenty of clues. CD - yes completely agree its very noticeable and much more so than any other PU - sounds like they are completely deactivating the cylinders- not only cutting fuel but completely reducing pumping loss which is a real biggie - in turn however this puts more load on brakes and on the MGU-K and their integration and there are signs aplenty that they have issues in that area.
    The other area I think they may be pushing is in the MGU-H. Harvesting turbo energy has been a dream for many (over the last 40 years in fact) but its been a false dawn as most don't get more than a handful of KW out of it. Audi has just given up on it in their LMP car. To date the main value of the MGU-H (for most) has been the ability to keep the Turbo spooled up. I suspect that Mercedes has made gains in this area: its a natural place to focus given that the energy harvested can bypass the ES completely. Could this be the main source of their advantage? I doubt it.
    Last year McLaren were quick early season and the consensus was that they resolved MGU-K and H integration with the ICE better than most - so clearly they have the ability to do that once the manufacturing issues are resolved.

  11. I do understand that McLaren has some problems with the powerplant but that was expected. They had all 2014 to share any information they could to the Honda guys still it didn't worked as expected. It's ok they can sort it out in the next races and test a lot. McLaren didn't had to work on the engine part, it's too easy to receive a engine rather than working on one, and McLaren were supplied by Mercedes for at least 15 years which is a lot. Now working with Honda, they have to work on everything that other teams have been doing for some years, and well they need time to understand how everything fits into place.

    One thing I don't like, it's the 4 powerplants per season, for McLaren, this season, they should had been allowed to use 5 powerplants since it's their 1st year with this engine. No tokens thou, but 5 powerplants.

    Also McLaren doesn't really have experience in the MGU-K and H parts of the engine and they can test quite a lot of ideas in the mean time. Here, they should be able to recover a lot by next year, sadly not sooner. They can thou change a lot of parts that are faulty, which is good and should ok, but they can't change how the parts are linked to the rest and that's the major flow of the new Honda powerplant, this cannot be changed next year since it's locked already in place (due to the regulations). So I think they need to spend every minute of every FP, to test as much as they can, since the others teams are doing it already.

    From my point of view, Ferrari and Mercedes will have the best advantage this year and the next year also, while the others teams can either recover or not the difference. But I expect Ferrari to pick up the pace after the middle of season, due to the fact that they are working and testing in a different way, while the other teams can't yet implement the same idea (the new testing bench is a very good advantage to the Ferrari guys, the rest need like 6 months to implement something similar).

    By 2017 McLaren should be ok with the engine, but it's a very long way till that day, my focus is on the next race since I have to work on different plans for my team.

    I wish you all a good day :)

  12. Matt,

    Listening to comments about the `misfiring` of the Red Bull and Toro Rosso cars in the Melbourne GP I have a question:
    Could it be that Renault also has some form of cilinders that are temporarely don't work as is the case and reasons you described in your article?
    I would appreciate your highly esteemed opinion.

    Wim van de Kimmenade

    1. Hi Wim

      All of the manufacturers use CD, it's just how it's being used that is of interest. I noted that RBR certainly seem to be more aggressive on this front now too...


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