Oh What Could Have Been…Time To Move On Everyone…
Recently from the Head of Honda Motorsport:
“He is a good person, he probably felt very ashamed of having to scold me… but he had to do it. After all, he wanted everything to be right, that’s why I’m so ashamed.”
Wow I can’t believe what I’m reading. The top guy at Honda’s engine program expressing his deepest sympathy for the three-year effort that sidelined two great champions, McLaren and Fernando Alonso.
It is not often that people admit their mistakes in business and it is even less often that the absolute head of a global company such as Honda will go on the record in the way Hasegawa has in this recent interview that was reported all over the web.
Are we all being to hard on Honda? Absolutely not. In the case of Honda, with respect to the engine/PU it has delivered to McLaren these last three seasons, they have utterly failed, and no more so than in this current year, number three of the partnership.
F1 is not about politeness, it is not about a gentleman’s bet, that kind of racing went out the door with the cloth cap, aviator goggles and the silk white scarf of the Downton Abbey era.
F1 is, and has been for as long as I can remember, a ruthless, cutthroat business that takes no prisoners and could care less about your sporting spirit. So for just one moment let us recognize that Honda deserves all the criticism it has received over the last three years, and especially in this final year, as the works supplier for McLaren.
As Hasegawa said himself, they were not ready, they did not do their homework, they were not fully prepared “Expectations about Honda were so, so high … that was our big mistake,” admitted Hasegawa. “It’s not that the McLaren project did not work, we just did not live up to expectations. We were too ambitious and we were not really ready in 2015. We’ve improved, but the leadership was not expecting this.”
Ron Dennis, while still at the helm, wasn’t expecting this either. It was he that reminded us that Honda is the largest engine manufacturer in the world and that it would produce a champion winning engine/PU and that McLaren would use it to win that next championship after Mercedes. What I don’t think Dennis, Honda, Alonso or any of us knew was how long this would take or more importantly, how punitive the penalties would be over the course of each year and on race weekend.
No one (except for Mercedes that is) fully understood the breadth of such an endeavor before they actually embarked on it. Well, we all know now, just how long this most complex engine formula takes to come right and it is not two years or three either. Who knows if it will be four, five, or even longer in Honda’s case?
In retrospect, we could have maybe taken a sign from Renault’s experience. Coming off eight world titles (four drivers and four constructors), they had a seriously fast power-plant, had perfected the art of off-throttle blowing and btw are the origin of so many of F1’s engine advancements and innovations, it would make your head spin, not to mention this was the team that introduced turbos to F1 in the first place the first time around.
Yet in the transition from normally aspirated V8’s to the hybrid turbo era even Renault didn’t only drop the ball, they dropped the ball, it got run over by a semi, was run through the shredder and then all of that got dropped into a vat of acid. I’m not kidding, that is how bad the first two years of the new engine formula were for Renault. They are still having issues in this 2017 F1 season, just ask Max or most recently Daniel.
This should have been the first red flag for Honda. That 2014 season for Red Bull should have been the wake up call before the wake up call to Honda that contemporary F1 engine building ain’t no joke.
Sadly, a little bit of hubris and over confidence I suspect gave the Japanese titan a false sense of, “No problem, we got this.” No, you don’t and no, you didn’t is all I can say.
Sure, the pressure must have been intense and yes, in partnering with McLaren you are twice under the microscope, not just in comparison to the current benchmark PU that Merc has produced but also to the ghosts of champions past. After reading about Hasagawa’s sincere apology, I was about to start giving Honda some credit for at the very least admitting their mistakes, taking responsibility for their shortcomings, hanging “in there” and sticking with the F1 thing, pride notwithstanding. But then along came the USGP in Austin.
It’s like a cruel joke that keeps playing out again and again. Do you know the Charlie Brown cartoon where Lucy holds the football for him to kick? Honda is Lucy. Alonso is Charlie Brown. The Honda engine is the ball. Just kidding, we don’t really have a decent engine for you this week! Really Honda, again??? First Stoffel Vandoorn’s car receives a “too many place” grid penalty and he has to start from the back of the grid. But the final straw, the moment that got my blood boiling for the umpteenth unbearable time was watching Fernando Alonso drive an underpowered car into the top ten and hold position there purely on merit (mostly due to his driving and the chassis and for sure some improvements from the PU side), but then, like Charlie Brown kicking at a ball that Lucy of course pulls away, causing him to fall down, we of course see the all-too-familiar slowing down due to loss of power, then the all-too-familiar scene of the rest of the field passing the orange, white and black car, and then finally the sad drive into the pits to retire the car. It’s now gone far beyond extremely frustrating for any McLaren, Honda, or Alonso fan.
I don’t think I can remember a time when I witnessed so many engine failures in a single year of F1. If I really think about it, I have to go back to the Stewart team, as in Jackie Stewart when he was running the team with his son back in the late 90’s with Ford as the engine supplier. If my memory serves me correctly (and it does – I just checked) Stewart’s reliability was dismal and similar to Honda, it was not just one year but three: ’96, ’97, and ’98. Not great company to be in, is it Honda?
After the weekend’s good pace that had Alonso putting in solid competitive times and seeing the two very long straights at COTA in which the Spaniard was not (for a change) being passed by the likes of Toro Rosso, Haas, Renault, or Sauber, there is no doubt in my mind that McLaren’s chassis is right up there with Red Bull’s, at least at some circuits.
I would even say that McLaren’s chassis could be, on certain tracks, on a par with the Merc and Ferrari chassis. I am thinking of Singapore and several races where Kimi Raikkonen could not get his car to work. But there is no substitute for horsepower, (and oh ya that little thing that Ross Brawn was steadfast on – Reliability) that is the simple fact and it is a deficit that even a great chassis cannot compensate for.
This season cannot end soon enough for me and I am quite sure that is exactly the feeling in Woking. It has been a difficult campaign this 2017 season for the second most winning team in F1, behind Ferrari. I am sure they want nothing more than to dust off their hands, say goodbye to that old friend that this time around just did not produce the desired spark, and start fresh come March of 2018.
There will be a new partner on board and while Renault have not yet ironed out all of their woes, one thing is for sure, their PU is a hell of a lot faster than Honda’s and with one more year maybe we will see some parity finally on the engine side.
Lastly, if there is any real take away from this complete disaster that we F1 fans have witnessed over the last three years it would be this: a cautionary tale that even three of the biggest names in F1 can get it oh so wrong. There was so much promise, so much potential, this was going to be manufacturer vs. manufacturer, super team vs. super team, super driver vs. super driver, but that did not happen, at least not with the Honda-McLaren-Alonso mix.
The last three years were a clear reminder that despite massive talent, gobs of money and plenty of experience winning everything under the sun, you are never guaranteed success – especially in F1.