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Christine Blachford

Christine became an avid follower of Formula One after getting a taste of the action way back in 2003. Today, you'll find Christine putting her experience to good use as writer and producer of the news show F1Minute, and editor of community F1 site Sidepodcast.

Going concern // Honda's Hungarian respite from retirements

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“I can’t say we are confident but we didn’t see any issues… This was the first time that I had no concern for finishing the race.”

These words, from the mouth of Honda’s motorsport boss Yusuke Hasegawa, show just a glimmer of hope about the progress that the Japanese engine manufacturer is making. The McLaren Honda partnership, that was supposed to be such a resplendent return to glory, has been the punchline to many of 2017’s jokes, and it’s been frankly quite painful to watch the McLaren team suffer disappointment after disappointment. The fact that twelve of their 22 race starts this year have ended in DNF (or worse, not even got going with a DNS) says more than any column needs to.

Small steps

The Hungarian Grand Prix, though, that was different. The cars showed improved pace through all the practice sessions. Both drivers qualified in the top ten. Both drivers FINISHED in the top ten. Stoffel Vandoorne scored his first points of the season. Fernando Alonso set the fastest lap of the race! It was a strong, solid weekend for a team that desperately needed some good points. They’ve moved ahead of Sauber in the championship standings and now sit ninth. Not where they would want to be, but a step up nevertheless.

McLaren Honda boys get results in Hungary
Credit: McLaren Honda

It would be easy to get carried away, suggesting this was the turning point and things would be easy from this point on. I’m confident that will not be the case. But it is something to cling on to, for fans, for employees, for the drivers. A sign that when the cars can get to the end of the race, there is something to work with. And that the cars getting to the end of the race mean the engines do work. Sometimes.

There was some strategy involved, we have to bear in mind, and the drivers have been taking hefty engine related penalties over the last few races to be able to race in Hungary – a track the team were confident the car could be strong at – with new power units and no grid drops. The gamble paid off.

There have been constant rumblings about whether McLaren desire to escape their contract with Honda, and search for more reliable power to push their cars and their progress forward. That could all still be the case, and one result isn’t going to undo the weeks and weeks of hurt. But if they are locked into the deal, or are loyal to the last, then this Hungarian race might just be a beacon of hope that they might at least start seeing the chequered flag on a more regular basis. It’s not asking much, is it?

Back to square one

Honda had been hoping their own development and testing progress would be helped by having more than one team on the roster. The deal with Sauber, whilst it didn’t speak volumes for the current fortunes of the Swiss team, did show that the Japanese manufacturer are keen to work out their problems and start pushing forward. Unfortunately, Honda may have been the only people that thought it was a good idea, as just a few weeks after the announcement was made that Sauber and Honda would be working together in 2018, so the partnership was undone. Confirmation came from Sauber that they would not go ahead with the planned technical alliance.

Honda may have been the only people that thought it was a good idea

The general feeling is that whilst Monisha Kaltenborn could accept running around at the back of the field in exchange for building up the team and getting back up to full strength for a real challenge at the front, the new owners are less keen. Kaltenborn has gone, and the deal with Honda has been struck off. Both parties admitted it was for strategic reasons and for different visions of the future direction of the partnership, but it’s clear to see that there’s one side that wanted out more than the other.

Sauber will continue with their Ferrari supply, which leaves Honda still looking for that second team to supply. Most of the front runners have their own deals shored up and are unlikely to want to risk putting the unreliable and uncompetitive Honda’s in their cars. The only name left in the frame, as current speculation has it, would be Toro Rosso – although there could be hang-ups in any discussions here as the Red Bull stable are quite protective of their driver decisions and don’t necessarily want to run a Japanese driver who isn’t from their selection of youngsters available.

Supply and demand

McLaren Honda partnership causes sparks
Credit: McLaren Honda

Honda need to have another team on board, if only to deflect some of the heat their struggling partnership with McLaren has generated. It’s looking difficult for them to really get a grip on the sport at the moment, but as always with Formula One, it doesn’t take much for things to turn around. A small rule change here, a manufacturer pulling out there, and everything could be blown wide open. The trick for Honda is to stick around long enough to be there when the wave of positive news hits.

That’s where they have struggled before. Their incredible move of departing the sport after ploughing enough money in to fund a Brawn GP race to the title is now infamous for it’s short-sighted thinking. What a different story we could be seeing these days if Honda had been the name painted above the Brackley doors, rather than the reticent Ross Brawn.

Honda’s return as an engine supplier rather than a full out team meant they could share the glory and the pain, and they could concentrate on the bit they need the most – the publicity of manufacturing rather than racing. With McLaren, it was supposed to be a return to their championship winning ways of previous decades, but of course that has not been the case.

Now, they are a laughing stock and the reason is clear. They are using up the goodwill generated by previous successes. They’ve taken two fantastic drivers (one proven, the other potential) and stuffed them at the back of the field for race after race. And if they’re not at the back of the field, they’re stuck in the garage. It all reflects badly on a brand that needs to start showing results.

And that’s exactly what Hungary did for them. It’s probably not going to be an easy race into the top five from here on in, and there’s plenty of work still to be done. But the Hungarian Grand Prix result, with two drivers picking up much needed points, showed that the aims aren’t lofty pie-in-the-sky ambitions. It’s possible, and it’s happening. We just have to continue being patient and hope that Honda can do the same.