Since new Formula One engine regulations were introduced last season, the reputation of Mercedes has been embellished, with the German manufacturer dominating both the 2014 and 2015 seasons. At the same time, reputations of the other three engine manufacturers have been tarnished.
Last year, Ferrari was criticized for having failed to make an engine on par with the Mercedes engine. This year, Renault has been lambasted not only for failing to improve its engine but for failing to keep pace with Ferrari, which did improve its engine.
The fact that Ferrari engines have won more races in the series than those of any other constructor — 225 victories since 1950 — or that Renault is the third-most victorious constructor — with 168 victories in 38 years — means nothing in a series in which what happened last weekend is generally the barometer of greatness.
But no engine manufacturer has had its reputation so badly dented this season as Honda, which returned to the series to power the McLaren cars and take on the challenge of the downsized hybrid-engine era.
The Japanese manufacturer had quit the series at the end of 2008, frustrated after having won just one race since 2000. It returned this year seeking to regain the glory of its more distant past, when it had powered the McLaren and Williams teams to several world titles in the 1980s and early 1990s. Honda is fifth in the statistics table for total victories, with 72. Mercedes is fourth, with 130 victories.
But this year, the McLaren team, powered by Honda, had one of the worst seasons in its history. It finished ninth of the 10 teams in the series, better only than the underfunded Manor team and its year-old Ferrari engine and chassis.
“We did not have enough time to be ready to race this season, which is one of the reasons the result is not so good,” said Yasuhisa Arai, director of the Honda racing engine program.
Honda came into the series a year after all the other engine manufacturers, who thus had a head start in developing the new engines.
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“In the middle of the season we found the exact weakness of the engine but we could not resolve it during the season,” Arai added.
Honda’s first foray into Formula One was also a failure: It raced from 1964 to 1968 and had only two victories. But when it powered Williams, in the late 1980s, and then McLaren, from 1988 to 1992, with Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost driving, it was one of the most exceptional periods of domination that the series has ever experienced.
So no one anticipated that the Japanese company’s return to the series this year would be such a disaster. The engine has not only been grossly underpowered, but it has also been unreliable, breaking down several times.
The current Formula One rules do not allow engine manufacturers to freely develop and modify their engine during the season. So Honda, like the other manufacturers, has been locked into trying to make only incremental changes.
McLaren’s two world champion drivers, Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button, finished in the points only six times this year. So McLaren, the second most successful team in history, behind only Ferrari, has been having a difficult time controlling the tensions between the team and Honda.
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Publicly, the two parties have put on a good face in interviews and press conferences. The drivers remained stoic, even optimistic at times.
But behind the scenes, it seems that things have not gone as well.
Alonso, a double world champion, came to McLaren this season after five seasons at Ferrari, where he had finished second in the series three times and concluded that he would never be able to win the title there. (Although Ferrari improved this year over last year, the driver who replaced Alonso, the four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel, finished third in the series.)
In radio messages to his team during races, which Alonso thought were private but were in fact broadcast during the race, Alonso came across as being less serene. He screamed to his team that it was embarrassing to drive such an underpowered car, and during the most sensitive race, at Honda’s home Grand Prix in Japan in October, he compared the engine to that of a car in the lower GP2 series.
But in Abu Dhabi last weekend he reverted to his polished demeanor.
“Personally I think it was necessary,” Alonso said, referring to his move to McLaren. “It was a step forward in my career after the two championships, after five fantastic seasons fighting for the world championship but arriving second, so I needed some new motivation, some new project that I could trust and I could believe is the only way to become champion again.”
“I enjoy working with McLaren, with Honda, with all the Japanese discipline and Japanese culture into the team,” he added. “I still remain very positive. I’m very, very happy and looking forward to next year being a little bit easier than this one, that, as I said, has been difficult in terms of results.”
Button took the same line in Brazil, the penultimate race.
“Nothing has changed for us — we knew it was going to be a difficult season,” he said. “Nothing has changed in my views for next year. Obviously it would be nice to see — we would all in this team love to see — more reliability. But we are trying to push and we are trying to make good gains through the year because next year is the year that is more exciting for us. This year has been more of a testing year for us.”
Éric Boullier, the team’s sporting director, has also tried to put a good face on the situation, but he has let moments of frustration show.
“We are dealing with Arai-san, who is responsible for motorsport and for Honda R.&D., and as long as we keep talking, listening, and seeing things improving, then I think it is all fine,” he said.
“Of course, he is under pressure,” he added. “But then Formula One is not easy, especially when you are coming from another culture, and it’s very dominated by an Anglo-Saxon culture, so it’s not easy to do things differently.”
Honda has also come under fire from the British news media, as McLaren is a British team and Button is a Briton. In September, several newspapers said McLaren had written to the president of Honda to call for Arai’s resignation because he had let down the drivers.
“Why? Why?” Arai said when reporters asked him if he would resign. “We are one team, we do our best as McLaren-Honda.”
Whether that relationship will enter history as one of Formula One’s biggest failures will depend on whether the manufacturer can improve the engine over the winter and on the team’s results next season.
“It’s going to be a long winter, but a winter I think we are all looking forward to,” Button said. “It’s not going to be an easy winter to find the time we need. For fighting at the front, we need to find 2.5 seconds, which is a massive gap.”