McLaren’s original partnership with Honda wrote an indelible chapter in the team’s history. An era of unparalleled success – between 1988 and 1992, McLaren-Honda won an incredible 44 of the 80 races they contested; built the MP4/4, the 1988 car that won all but one its races, and made legendary the bitter rivalry between team-mates Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost.
At its height, McLaren-Honda arguably was Formula 1, so utterly dominant and riveting was its story that it remains to this day one of the most iconic eras in grand prix history.
The second Honda era, which began with a prestigious announcement at Honda’s Aoyama, Tokyo headquarters in May 2013 and ended when the chequered flag fell at the end of the 2017 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, wrote another memorable chapter in the team’s long history – but sadly for many of the wrong reasons.
The first fruits of that partnership was the MP4-29H/1X1, a 2014 chassis converted into a test-mule to run the new Honda V6 at a Silverstone shakedown and the end-of-season Abu Dhabi test.
The first new de facto McLaren-Honda car since 1992 was 2015’s MP4-30, a bold new conceptual design that leaned heavily on the influence of new aerodynamics guru Peter Prodromou, and which ushered in a new design philosophy within the McLaren drawing office.
The car was aerodynamically advanced, featuring tightly shrink-wrapped bodywork around its rear end, a feature that earned the ’30 the ‘size zero’ monicker for the remainder of the year.
It was driven by double-world champion Fernando Alonso, who had been lured back to the team after a long spell at Ferrari, and Jenson Button, the 2009 title winner beginning his fifth consecutive season with the marque.
The partnership got off to a difficult start during pre-season testing. The new Honda engine quickly proved both down on power and unreliable, resulting in the team losing a great deal of track-time as it worked to repair or re-install power unit components.
To make matters worse, Fernando was hospitalised in Barcelona after crashing into the barriers. His lengthy recovery meant he was forced to miss both the final test and the first race of the year in Australia, where reserve driver Kevin Magnussen was drafted in to deputise.
After a difficult pre-season, during which the team failed to complete a grand prix distance, Jenson nonetheless brought the car home in 11th position at the season opener in Melbourne, earning the partnership an unexpected first race finish, albeit two laps down on the leader. Magnussen’s race – his only outing in 2015 – was short-lived: he qualified last, and failed to start after a pre-race engine failure.
As the season progressed, the car was significantly upgraded. Launched in a chrome-silver livery and an extended duck-bill nose, the paint-job was re-designed ahead of the Spanish Grand Prix, the fifth round of the season. The new anthracite-grey car also received its first major aerodynamic upgrade of the year at the Austrian Grand Prix when a shorter snub nose was introduced.
The partnership scored its first world championship points at the Monaco Grand Prix, when Jenson Button finished eighth. However, points were in short supply for the remainder of the season – in Hungary, both drivers finished in the top 10 for the only time that season, after Fernando came home fifth, Jenson ninth.
By the end of the season, McLaren-Honda had amassed just 27 points, finishing ninth in the constructors’ championship.
By all accounts, it was a difficult year for a partnership that, on paper, promised so much.
Closer analysis made the under-performance a little easier to explain: Honda had entered the sport a year earlier than initially planned, which accounted for much of the reliability and performance issues. The chassis too was in its first season, and lacked much of the iterative momentum that had enabled other teams to establish a more competitive foothold.
With new personnel onboard for 2016, and with a year’s experience under its belt, it looked like McLaren-Honda could put its character-building first season behind it and focus on improved fortunes for year two of this ambitious project.