Is it serious, Doc?
This came as little surprise but the McLaren-Hondas were the slowest cars in Australia. Jenson Button did reach the chequered flag, albeit two laps down from both Mercedes and the gap in qualifying was colossal. On the grid, the lead MP4-30 of Button trailed the pole-sitting W06 of Hamilton by a staggering 5.095s. Of course, Jenson’s time was set in Q1 while Lewis clocked his Saturday benchmark in Q3, once more rubber had been laid down on the track. Still, the #22 McLaren finished 2.836s adrift of the #44 Mercedes in the opening phase of qualifying alone, when grip conditions were the same for both cars (although engine maps were undoubtedly different). What’s more, the 2009 world champion’s best effort remained 2.2s off Sergio Perez’s slowest flying lap in Q2.
While things look slightly better in Malaysia and the Albert Park Circuit may not be the most representative venue on the F1 calendar performance wise; we can still try to gauge the bhp deficit of the Honda hybrid power unit compared to Mercedes. F1 engineers use the following mathematical ratio to convert a time gap into a horsepower deficit: 0.016s is equal to 1bhp. This means that 3s would amount to a difference of 188bhp, with 5s being equivalent to a 312bhp gap… Honda’s true deficit probably lies somewhere in between these two values, bearing in mind that part of it is also down to the chassis, albeit certainly to a lesser extent.
Another clue comes from Button being 15.5kph slower that Felipe Massa’s Williams over the start/finish line with the gap then ‘falling’ to 14.8kph at the end of the straight where top-end speeds are measured. This would indicate that the ERS is the Japanese power unit’s weakest spot since the systems mainly kick in on corner exit. The MGU-K, which recovers kinetic energy under braking, and the MGU-H, which harvest energy at the exhaust, deliver a combined power worth around 160-200bhp. The actual figure depends on how efficiently the MGU-H works since the FIA technical regulations do not set any limit to its power.
Honda adopted a very conservative approach in Melbourne by detuning everything in order to avoid any overheating issues (although local temperatures in Australia were below 30°C). This means that, once McLaren is done with Sepang’s sweltering conditions, the Woking-based team should quickly regain some horsepower. Still, it remains surprising to see cooling problems pop up again after these had been addressed and apparently erased in pre-season testing.
How did the iconic McLaren-Honda alliance end up in its current morass? Without being exhaustive, here are three reasons why the rekindled partnership is struggling at the moment.