As I watched the Australian GP unfold from the comfort of my armchair I couldn't help but feel sympathy for everyone in the McLaren-Honda camp. I've known Ron Dennis for longer than either of us care to remember, and I've been a fan of Jenson Button since he first burst into the scene with Williams at the same event 15 years ago. Neither they nor the rest of the hard-working team deserved to endure such a tough weekend. Jenson did at least see the chequered flag, and no doubt the data gathered on Sunday afternoon will prove to be invaluable as both McLaren and Honda search for a way forward.
While comparisons with where Mercedes, Renault and Ferrari were a year ago have some validity, don't forget that Honda had been out of the sport since 2008. The others benefited from continuity, whereas for the returning Japanese manufacturer it's been a fresh start, with a whole new infrastructure to create, and new relationships to build with a team that it last worked with back in 1992.
That said I don't think anyone could have predicted that Melbourne would be quite so tough, and the sight of Button finishing 11th and last was a painful one. I have to say it put me to thinking about some of the other race weekends when things fell apart for McLaren, such as the infamous double non-qualification for Niki Lauda and John Watson at Monaco in 1983, or the time at the Nurburgring in 1995 when a perfect storm of damp conditions, low tyre temperatures and a tricky car led to Mika Hakkinen and Mark Blundell trundling around at the back, fighting it out with the likes of Pacific and Forti.
However, given the name at the top of this website page it is probably better not to dwell too much on the times things went wrong, and thus we should perhaps focus instead on a positive – indeed an earlier Australian GP that could perhaps serve as a metaphor for McLaren-Honda's current predicament.
Many people were surprised when, as reigning world champion, Button forfeited the chance to stay on as Brawn GP morphed into Mercedes in 2010, and instead opted to join McLaren. In so doing he set himself up for a head-to-head fight with Lewis Hamilton, one that many thought he could only lose. That year's Australian GP was the race that silenced the sceptics – and it neatly showed that running last in no way precludes your ability to finish first, a notion that all at McLaren-Honda should take onboard with good cheer.
Having finished seventh on his McLaren debut in Bahrain, Jenson qualified an encouraging fourth in Melbourne, behind the Red Bulls of Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber, and the Ferrari of Fernando Alonso. Rain was forecast for Sunday, and with astonishing precision, it fell as the cars were waiting on the grid for the late 5pm start. There followed a mad scramble to fit intermediates.
Vettel got away well on the slick surface, while Felipe Massa charged up from fifth to second, getting ahead of Webber. Behind him Jenson nudged Fernando into a spin at Turn One; the Spaniard collected the Mercedes of the returning Michael Schumacher, dislodging the German’s front wing. A safety car then came out after a more serious shunt further round the lap.
Meanwhile the track was drying rapidly. Having lost a few places with the early contact Jenson rolled the dice and charged into the pits for dries on lap six, a move that inevitably dropped him to the back. When he went out again he slithered around for a lap, even running onto the grass at Turn Three, and it initially looked like it had been a disastrous decision, and one that would cost him any hope of a decent result.
“I made the call to pit early as I thought if I don’t pit early I am just going to keep going backwards,” said Button at the time. “I thought it was a terrible call initially as the pit lane was so wet, and after my first lap out of the pits, I thought it was a pretty catastrophic mistake. But after that I could get into it. I found on the dry parts I could push pretty hard and then really it was about picking people off as they came out onto the circuit.”
As Jenson began to set fastest lap sectors the whole pitlane could soon see that he had got it right. Others then made the necessary trip to the pits, and when everyone else's tyre changing was done Vettel was still in front, but Jenson had leaped up to second. On dry tyres the German was able to consolidate his advantage, eventually pulling away from the McLaren.
“It was a nice feeling as they are searching for the grip and I know where it is and I am able to overtake,” said Jenson. “I got up behind Sebastian and made a little mistake, ran wide, so I couldn’t really have a go at him. He obviously had his own problems, but from then on I just had to conserve the tyres.”
Second place would be a fine reward in its own right, but there was more to come. On lap 26 leader Vettel felt a vibration, due it later turned out to a front wheel working loose. He was heading for the pits when he spun off the track.
Button was thus handed the lead, and thereafter he drove a perfect race. It was far from easy, because he had to make his soft Option tyres last for 52 of the 58 laps, but his well-known capacity for smooth driving paid dividends. It was a fantastic performance by the Brit, and a great effort by the team. Jenson's decision to join McLaren was vindicated on a day when Hamilton finished sixth after being struck by Webber in the closing stages. Lewis now knew that he had a fight on his hands...
The turnaround won't happen as quickly as it did in the course of that afternoon, but Jenson's 2010 Melbourne win could provide some inspiration both for JB himself and the whole team - something along the lines of never give up.
It might not be looking so rosy right now, but the potential of the Honda package is immense, and the company has a history of getting it right after the occasional early misstep. I'm confident that somewhere down the road everything will come together.
I can imagine just how hard the team has worked since the Honda deal was first announced back in May 2013, but the early struggles show just how difficult F1 really is. As they say, if it was easy, everyone would do it, and we should congratulate Honda for their bold decision to come back and take on the sport's ultimate challenge.