The 2015 Australian Grand Prix will not be remembered by many as a classic race. It lacked grid numbers (16 drivers started the Grand Prix, 6 less than in 2014), strategy, and for long periods, action. It did however prove to be a major milestone for 1 team though - McLaren Honda.
Given how pre-season testing had gone for the team, it was hard for anyone to predict that a Mclaren would last until the first pitstops, let alone do the race distance. That belief was compounded when Magnussen pulled over with smoke billowing out from the Honda power unit on his way to the grid itself. The intentions for Button’s race were therefore laid bare when Martin Brundle found Ron Dennis on his grid walk. Ron’s answer pointed towards the fact that the drivers (including McLaren) are only allowed 4 power units to last the entire season, and so they can’t go through them at this stage if they are to challenge later in the year. Fernando Alonso is already down to 3 then, with 18 races still to go…
Despite the fact the team will have limited the power output from the Honda, Jenson Button finishing the race was a huge achievement for McLaren. All of preseason testing saw headlines that seemed to spell ruin and major troubles at McLaren, before contradicting themselves simply by highlighting that all the other teams had the same issues in 2014. Those comparisons seemed to end once the MP4-30 touched down in Melbourne though, with it seemingly a major upset that the McLaren’s would line up on the back row of the grid.
Whilst any comparison between qualifying in 2014 and qualifying 2015 has many variables that should not be ignored, I decided to have a look at just how McLaren’s Q1 pace matched up to their rivals through the engine infancy of Mercedes, Renault and Ferrari. Kevin Magnussen’s 2015 time of 1:32.0 put him last of all the runners, but in Q1 2014 he would have been 9th. Jenson Button was 6 tenths faster, rewarding him with 6th in 2014 terms. McLaren aside, this at least stands to prove exactly how much teams have improved over just 1 season with these new engines and with the aerodynamic changes as well. I will emphasise again of course that the comparisons may not be wholly representative, but the difference in conditions certainly doesn’t add up to all of the time gains of the 2015 season opener.
If comparisons between a 20 minute session in 2014 and 2015 should be taken with a pinch of salt, then an entire race should be taken with a single grain of the stuff. Nevertheless, it does make for interesting reading. Button finishing the race allows us to compare his race time to last year, but it is tricky deciphering exactly when he crossed the finish line. With Hamilton lapping all runners up to 6th place, and lapping Button twice, the live timing available can only say how many laps down they are on the leader. Button therefore completed 56 laps, 1 less than the 2014 event. His exact race time can be estimated though in that Hamilton was approximately halfway between Perez (10th) and Button when he crossed the line, given that neither were in the TV shot of Hamilton crossing the finishing line. That gap between Perez and Button was last shown as being 38.485 seconds, so we’ll add 19 seconds to the race time of Hamilton, along with repeating Button’s final lap time (1:33.xxx). This giving a predicted race time for Button at 1 hour, 33 minutes and 46 seconds. Both races were run in the dry and featured 1 safety car period, but again emphasise on the rough nature of these numbers!
So where would this heavily estimated but based on best estimates lap time have placed Button in 2014? 6th place, narrowly behind the Williams of Valtteri Bottas. He would have also been on the lead lap, finishing around 48 seconds behind the race winner, Nico Rosberg. After Daniel Ricciardo’s disqualification, McLaren actually finished in second and third so I doubt it still makes for better reading to the team to see they have taken a step backwards. It is however to be expected in a team left to develop the Honda engine by themselves. Every time Red Bull ended running early preseason 2014, Toro Rosso, Lotus and Caterham were all still gathering valuable data on the Renault power unit. The work for Honda is clear in 2015, but it will be slow progress. They detuned the engine for Australia, and will do the same in Malaysia, so no one should expect McLaren to be beating rivals yet. Manor Racing have confirmed that they will at least be enjoying track time in Malaysia and I expect even they may fancy finishing ahead of McLaren if they race and if they finish.
The key question is still when McLaren might expect to run competitively. Early predictions from the team was at least the start of the European leg of the championship, but it seems more likely for it to be after the summer break and into the flyaway races if it is to be in 2015 at all. The time for re-evaluation is likely to be heralded by the news that Honda have used their development tokens to change engine components. Until then though, expect a lot of damage control as they attempt to preserve as many of the remaining 7 power units as possibly for that last third of the season.
Written by Perry Brown, http://perrybrownf1.blogspot.co.uk/