McLaren-Honda Formula One driver Jenson Button says his team won’t be challenging for a win at the season-opening Grand Prix this weekend, but says it’s just a “matter of time” before the new team gets to the pointy end of the field.
The UK-based team has reunited with Honda as its engine supplier for the 2015 season, with the Japanese brand keen to wade back into racing to bolster the development of its high-end hybrid technology and re-instate its sporting reputation.
Button and Honda Motorsport chief Yasuhisa Arai admitted today that the winter testing period had been less than ideal. The Honda power unit has been plagued by reliability issues, traced back in part to the tight packaging of the power unit.
The team’s lap count is lower than most rivals, which in addition have an extra year of experience with F1’s hybrid powertrains. The team also suffered a setback when star recruit Fernando Alonso — like Button, a two-time World Champion — suffered a serious crash a few weeks ago.
Button and Arai-san were speaking in Melbourne ahead of the GP this weekend. Button will be lead driver, and 2015 reserve driver Kevin Magnussen will join him in the second car in lieu of the resting Alonso.
Button was candid about his team’s chances:
“We all know it’s not going to be the easiest weekend for us… winter testing, we had our difficulties. But I think the car and engine is a really good platform, it’s just going to take us a bit of time.
“In terms of the philosophy, and the ideas behind the aerodynamics and power unit, it’s a fantastic base for the future. This weekend is just about getting the best out of everything we have…
“Will we be challenging for a win? No, we won’t be. But this is the first race with this new package and a new era of McLaren-Honda. We all remember the 80s with Senna and Prost fighting it out for the World Championship, but you could only do that if you had the best car in the world, which they did.”
This is alluding to the previous joining of McLaren and Honda, which dominated the grid in the 1980s with star drivers Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost.
Button said working closely with Honda’s engineers meant any issues picked up over testing were being ironed out quickly, and said the supplementary ERS hybird unit was impressively papering over any torque holes evident in the 1.6-litre turbo engine.
Arai-san was similarly conservative in his predictions, though he said he always aimed for a podium. He said one chief aim was to learn lessons by “surviving the very severe street course race” this weekend.
Formula One fans may recall Red Bull-Renault entered the 2014 season opener in a similar situation to McLaren-Honda this year, with few development laps under its belt and a big cloud over its reliability and pace. Australian (then number two) driver Daniel Ricciardo then defied this and finished second, before stewards stripped him of the result over a race breach.
The question for Button in light of this, is was he being unduly pessimistic?
“I’m not trying to keep your expectations down, I’m being truthful. I think the difficulty for us is everybody else has one year experience with the complex power units, it’s not as simple as it once was.
“I think that's probably why Honda wants to be involved… But as I say we’re one year behind, so it’s always going to be difficult to compete [at first].”
Later, Button added: “Every lap we achieve this weekend is a lot of useful information. I’m just excited to get out there and see what we have, I’m a bit unsure of the pecking order in F1 at the moment.”