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 - http://www.autozine.org/technical_school/engine/Intake_exhaust.html), 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.