Is Honda on the cusp of its redemption story?

Michael Lamonato Columnist

By Michael Lamonato, Michael Lamonato is a Roar Expert

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    Toro Rosso are one of three teams desperate to seal sixth place. (Photo by Peter Fox/Getty Images)

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    If you’d been asked ahead of last week’s first preseason test which team was most likely to be afflicted by an engine-related ‘£2 problem which cost us a lot of track time’, you’d almost certainly have provided Toro Rosso-Honda as the prime candidate.

    An understandable choice, too, given Honda’s laughable reliability record, which earned Toro Rosso only pity for it adoption of the out-of-favour Japanese company for 2018, allowing McLaren to take up its Renault engine supply in exchange. This season was written off long before it had even begun.

    But it was McLaren, not Toro Rosso, that was felled by “a stupid bolt that broke in the exhaust”, restricting it to just 37 laps on the second day of the test. In a delicious bout of you-just-couldn’t-write-it irony Toro Rosso-Honda completed the most laps of any team across all four days.

    Even more remarkable is Toro Rosso-Honda was equal third quickest in the speed trap and some 17 kilometres per hour faster than McLaren.

    This is despite Toro Ross technical director James Key telling Sky Sports that Honda is still down on power compared to Renault’s 2017 engine, though he believes that gap can close before the end of the season.

    There are of course the usual testing caveats attached to this information. By the end of day four McLaren finished with just 64 fewer laps – albeit including the 11 useless laps set on day three, which was snowed out – than Toro Rosso. Further, in proving reliable across 324 laps Honda has only proven that it can do what should be expected of any motor manufacturer: don’t blow up.

    Moreover, thanks to the so-called ‘beast from the east’ weather system, conditions in during this test were deeply unrepresentative, so much so that teams had to reduce cooling to keep up with the almost-freezing conditions.

    This week’s test, from Tuesday to Friday, is scheduled to run in far more reasonable weather, which will allow the teams to really begin pushing their packages in what is traditionally the phase of testing that they aim for pace rather than just reliability anyway. But the first Test has nonetheless posed some intriguing questions.

    Might there be an identifiable reason that explains Honda’s expectation-busting week?

    First, Honda’s improvement was predictable to a degree. What was particularly galling for McLaren last year was that Honda took a step backwards in power and reliability from its reasonable 2016 offering, principally because it had fundamentally redesigned the power unit ahead of 2017, essentially starting from scratch.

    Fernando Alonso turns a corner in his McLaren-Honda Formula One car at the Austrian Grand Prix.

    This season’s engine is an evolution of last year’s design, so it should always have been a big step forward.

    But there’s more to the Toro Rosso-Honda relationship than just building on McLaren’s toil, with Toro Rosso principal Franz Tost praising his team’s “fantastic working relationship” with the Japanese company.

    “From the communications side we at Toro Rosso started to prepare ourselves for this cooperation,” he said. “We had a couple of lessons in Faenza on how to communicate with Japanese companies and with Honda … because it’s a completely different culture.”

    It could be here that the fortunes of Toro Rosso and McLaren could be most starkly differentiated.

    McLaren pushed Honda infamously hard from day one.

    Honda had to build an engine to McLaren’s so-called ‘size zero’ chassis, giving it little space to learn and develop, and McLaren the aggressively agitated for then Honda boss Yasuhisa Arai to resign when it felt he wasn’t delivering the goods. McLaren played a significant role in undermining its own partner.

    This is not to say Honda does not deserve criticism for failing perform – certainly it does – but already Toro Rosso appears to have identified communication and teamwork as the chief bonds that will see the project through.

    “Toro Rosso have just got on with allowing Honda to get on with the job,” Gary Anderson, ex-Jordan and Stewart designer, told the Autosport podcast.

    “I spoke to some Toro Rosso people today, and one of them was saying they got [two] engine specifications from Honda.

    “[The second specification] … was slightly different in an area where Honda felt they were compromising their reliability, but McLaren demanded that they did it [used the first].”

    “It’s never just as black and white as blaming Honda for these problems.”

    All these things will not instantly turn Honda’s engines from minnows into race-winners, but what these early green shoots hint at is that in the right conditions, with the right teammates and with the right motivation – Red Bull Racing, in deciding by May whether to take up Honda power, could bring the Japanese engines into podium contention – Honda could yet redeem itself in Formula One.

    2018 preseason: first test

    Testing by team
    Team Laps Kilometres
    Toro Rosso-Honda 324 1508.22
    Mercedes 306 1424.43
    Ferrari 298 1387.19
    Sauber-Ferrari 283 1317.37
    Williams-Mercedes 276 1284.78
    Renault 273 1270.82
    McLaren-Renault 260 1210.30
    Red Bull Racing-Renault 209 972.90
    Haas-Ferrari 187 870.49
    Force India-Mercedes 166 772.73
    Testing by power unit
    Power unit Laps Kilometres
    Ferrari 768 3575.04
    Mercedes 748 3481.94
    Renault 742 3454.01
    Honda 324 1508.22
    Testing by time
    Team Time Gap
    Mercedes 1:19.333
    Ferrari 1:19.673 0.340
    McLaren-Renault 1:19.854 0.521
    Red Bull Racing-Renault 1:20.179 0.846
    Haas-Ferrari 1:20.317 0.984
    Renault 1:20.547 1.214
    Williams-Mercedes 1:21.142 1.809
    Toro Rosso-Honda 1:21.318 1.985
    Force India-Mercedes 1:21.841 2.508
    Sauber-Ferrari 1:22.721 3.388
    Michael Lamonato
    Michael Lamonato

    Michael is one-third of F1 podcast Box of Neutrals, as heard weekly on ABC Grandstand Digital nationwide. Though he's been part of the F1's travelling press room since 2012, people seem more interested in the time he was sick in a kart - but don't ask about that, follow him on Twitter instead @MichaelLamonato.

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    The Crowd Says (4)

    • March 6th 2018 @ 11:25am
      freddieeffer said | March 6th 2018 @ 11:25am | ! Report

      It takes two to tango, but that doesn’t mean one of the partner’s was a mug!

      An unhealthy marriage can only end in an ugly divorce, and so it has come to pass. Time usually tells if one party should take most of the responsibility for failure, and 2018 will no doubt reveal that. For mine, never under-estimate Honda; they will be back with a vengeance AND surprise everybody…. scorn Honda to your peril.

    • March 6th 2018 @ 1:26pm
      Jason Crawford said | March 6th 2018 @ 1:26pm | ! Report

      It certainly will be interesting. I don’t think Honda is without blame, but I think it is unfair to place the entire blame on Honda. Rob Dennis was notoriously difficult to deal with and when Honda had to deal with him so to speak it would have been no easy task. At no stage where Honda given absolute creative freedom so to speak, they were told what they had to do and essentially had no real say in it. McLaren needed to let them do what they are the experts at doing, designing, building and developing an engine. I think what Honda have now is really going to benefit them and give them every opportunity to improve. Will Red Bull make the switch to Honda? That will be interesting to see, however I am not entirely sure it is the right move for them to make for a little while. They must be up the front and able to compete for championships etc, and it may be a couple more years of development before the Honda power unit is capable of that

    • March 6th 2018 @ 2:56pm
      Dexter The Hamster said | March 6th 2018 @ 2:56pm | ! Report

      Thanks Michael, I know we will get a better gauge on it by the end of this week, but first testing has shown me that the Mercs are still way out in front. Its a worry for those wanting a competitive season. Anyway…..

      Can you imagine Fernando on the radio if he is passed by a Honda powered car down the straight in the next couple of years?? That will be when he gives the game away surely. Mind you hope it doesn’t happen, love to see Fernando (and McLaren) back on the podium where they belong. Early signs suggest it might happen this year.

    • March 6th 2018 @ 5:38pm
      Simoc said | March 6th 2018 @ 5:38pm | ! Report

      McLaren have been telling us how great their chassis wasin the past couple of season as have the British writers. If McLaren are behind Red Bull and even Renault who will they be blaming next. They have nowhere to hide. Ron Denis is long gone. It’s high time McLaren delivered. It would be sensational if Honda came back strongly. There is a question mark over the Torro Rosso drivers ability at F1 level. Without a Sainz there it is hard to measure progress. Hopefully we have surprises in store for us this season.

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