2015 already promised to be an intriguing Formula 1 season for McLaren and is even more so now they have confirmed their driver line-up.
This post is in part a response to Sidepodcast’s recent F1 Debrief podcast on the subject which you can listen to here.
They wanted to hear everyone’s opinions and I thought it would be a good opportunity to use this space here. Let them know your thoughts, too.
Honda Are Back
Until now the return of Honda was clearly the major talking point for the team. Not only are Honda back in F1 but they are exclusively supplying McLaren in a works deal. McLaren are accustomed to being the lead partner with an engine supplier, getting all the good parts first and dictating the direction of development.
The team being knocked down to customer status, funnily enough because Mercedes bought the ex-Honda team, wasn’t a situation that was going to last especially once Ron Dennis got back in control. Now their works status is restored. I’m sure Honda will pick up customer teams later but even if they do their focus will surely be on McLaren.
The lack of other teams is a short-term problem of course. Not only are Honda 12 months behind Mercedes, Renault and Ferrari but with only one team Honda will have fewer cars to test with than their rivals, less mileage in the ‘Winter Grand Prix’ on the Spanish and Bahraini test tracks. The already tough challenge is a lot harder in that situation.
It isn’t a given that Honda will immediately produce a good power unit, remember the troubles in 2007/2008 before they pulled out. Then for 2009 they piled a ton of money and development into the car before pulling out and leaving the great car to BrawnGP to reap the rewards… with the help of a Mercedes engine which was more powerful. Had Honda stayed in 2009 with the same good car but the less good Honda engine would the team have won the title? That is one of the great imponderables of motor racing.
I certainly hope the Honda that turns up this time is the one pushing to win.
Head To Head – The Incumbent
I’m very relieved Jenson Button has another year or two with the team and I hope the time isn’t squandered waiting for Honda and McLaren to gel. Hopefully his time with Honda in the past will help, it surely must?
JB has always had his doubters and in my view has always been underrated. He may not be the ultimate best but he is not far off it. Most agree the fastest in F1 is Lewis Hamilton, across their three years together at McLaren Button outscored him. Now admittedly Hamilton was struggling with his head towards the end of his McLaren stint but it is still an accomplishment.
How will he handle Alonso? I don’t think it’ll be as some are suggesting. I think Alonso will have the edge but I don’t think it will be a walkover by any means.
Mark Hughes of Motor Sport, formerly of Autosport and one of the finest F1 writers, wrote this must-read piece analysing the strengths and weaknesses of Button’s game.
Interestingly, perhaps tellingly, he says Button doesn’t focus on erasing his weaknesses or manhandling a car he doesn’t like, as Alonso might. Instead he develops his strengths so they are even stronger and works with the team to remove weaknesses from the car, rather than himself. When it comes to the car he’s a perfectionist so you can see why McLaren like him!
Anyway it is a brilliant piece of explanation and you should read it.
Head To Head – The Returnee
Fernando Alonso is the best all-round racer in F1. On the track it is as if he has no weaknesses, even on a bad day he is still at his top level and drags the best out of any bad car.
Surely this will be a tougher challenge for Button than even Hamilton, because Alonso isn’t merely fast he’s uncompromising, he never gives up and can drive almost anything. You rarely go head to head with Alonso in the same team and come out on the other side looking good.
He is also decidedly fed up with not winning Championships. An interesting statistic from Mark Hughes, this time in the current edition of Motor Sport magazine, is that had Alonso scored just 8 more points in his career, at the right times, he’d be a 5-time champion not a 2-time one. And he’d be worthy of it. Trouble is… he knows it!
It is slightly different behind the scenes, he does like to get his own way and isn’t the best at pulling a team together. If the car isn’t up to scratch he’ll get frustrated and when he’s frustrated he runs his mouth to the press or to Twitter.
Alonso has seen off Kimi Raikkonen, albeit a Kimi who just can not get on with the cars Ferrari are producing. I have to imagine if the Ferrari wasn’t so recalcitrant, if the traits of it were more to Kimi’s liking, then the fierce battle between the two we were all expecting would’ve materialised. Will the same happen at McLaren?
He gambled on spaces opening up elsewhere but found none, so now he has done the unthinkable and rejoined McLaren of all places! Not only that but a McLaren run by Ron Dennis. You can imagine if Martin Whitmarsh were still there that’s one thing, but Ron? After the failed blackmail attempt, the loss of the Constructors’ points, the $100m fine, the espionage case..? Remarkable.
That’s why I think Fernando 2015 may not be the same as the Fernando throwing his weight around inside the team, demanding his own way. He could be a much more humble, docile creature. For a year, anyway.
My bet? Alonso will find his feet, Button will match or even surpass him. Alonso will ultimately score more points.. but not that many more. Year 2, that might be different.
The Best Drivers In F1?
Equally as fascinating will be the Kimi vs Seb match-up at Ferrari. Kimi has the chance to get his head back in the game after a beating from Alonso. Vettel can say the exact same thing after meeting Ricciardo. Both have a point to prove.
Then of course there’s the bunfight at Mercedes, round two!
The resurgent Williams pair. You don’t take a title run against Hamilton to the final round if are a fool, Massa is no fool he’s underated too. That Bottas had such a year against him was as much a reflection of his talent.
Red Bull have the excellent Ricciardo and the promising Kvyat.. but is it too soon for him?
I think McLaren just about shades it. On the whole, over a season I’d pick a combo of Alonso and Button.
We’re already in for a hell of a year and we aren’t even close to testing starting yet to know who might be quick. Yet you have people saying F1 is boring..!
F1 Debrief / Sidepodcast
Mark Hughes / Motor Sport