McLaren and Honda reunite in 2015 for the first time since 1992. And while the two entities may ultimately recapture the glory days together, it is likely going to take time to get there.
The reunion comes following the 24-year interlude with Mercedes-Benz for 20 seasons, and a year apiece with Peugeot and Ford in the mid-1990s.
Heading into Melbourne, a circuit where both McLaren drivers finished on the podium a year ago, the team enters 2015 far from the position they hoped to be.
It’s been something of a trying offseason since the final Grand Prix of the 2014 season in Abu Dhabi.
The driver lineup was delayed until mid-December, which caused a small bit of angst. Granted, Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button remain two of F1’s best drivers and as recently as four or five years ago, you might have called them the best overall lineup on the grid (perhaps you still could, although Mercedes or Ferrari might beg to differ).
But neither driver got the chance to do much running over the winter, with the team barely completing more than 200 laps over 12 days of running in Spain. Reliability issues seemed to sabotage running nearly every day.
Add to that the intrigue, speculation, obfuscation and varying dissemination of information surrounding Alonso’s testing accident in Barcelona, and you have a giant stew of question marks heading into the season.
Drivers and team personnel are both high on experience, but their patience level might be tested. At least initially, the new Honda era at McLaren is more likely going to be focused on development rather than outright pace or performance at the sharp end of the grid in its first year.
Consider Honda is at the point of its power unit curve development where the other three on the grid, Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault, were a year ago.
When the car’s ran, it’s looked semi-respectable – perhaps the fifth or sixth best chassis on the grid. But it will likely take until the European rounds, at least, to see the potential begin to be realized.
It probably won’t be this year that McLaren hits the high notes of glory as they did nearly 30 years ago, when McLaren won four consecutive World Championships from 1988 to 1991, three with Ayrton Senna and one with Alain Prost. In the intervening 24 years since, the team’s drivers have won only three titles.
As the car develops, McLaren is likely to be closer to the front, perhaps as the third or fourth best package, where it’s been the last two years. Button and Alonso – when he returns – will need to spend time sorting the package out, and be afforded more opportunity by Ron Dennis and the rest of management with which to do so.
It wasn’t really fair to either Sergio Perez or Kevin Magnussen the last two years to see them removed after one season apiece. Both drivers had good moments, but neither had a great car to work with, and found themselves on the chopping block rather quickly.
Heading into 2015, Alonso is now 33 and Button 35. They’re two of the most experienced drivers on the grid, but they’re closer to the ends of their illustrious, World Championship-winning careers than the beginning.
They more than anyone on the grid in 2015 have the most experience in managing midlevel cars and exceeding the expectations, and they’ll likely need to utilize that experience in spades.
Still, time is a precious, valuable commodity. These two drivers may be able to deal with the developmental process for at least a year, but beyond that may stretch their patience.
From the team side, McLaren hasn’t helped itself with its handling of Alonso’s accident from a PR or communications standpoint. Alonso is out for at least the season-opening Australian Grand Prix, and possibly more if his health isn’t up to scratch for Malaysia and beyond. Magnussen will get at least one race to show what he can do.
It’s weird that two of the most illustrious – and successful – brands in F1 history enter 2015 with such low expectations, but preseason testing has not afforded the team the benefit of the doubt.
The 2015 season may be the beginning of a glorious new partnership between the two, but it also may start the countdown clock until the patience runs out.