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Honda Starting On The Back Foot?

When Honda first announced their return to Formula 1 with the McLaren team, the decision to delay the launch until the 2015 season seemed like a cautious but beneficial move. The new hybrid power units are very complicated pieces of equipment so the extra year of development and the fact that they can use 2014 performance figures to benchmark their engine means they have a better understanding and chance to be level with their competitors this year.

Given their strength throughout 2014, the Mercedes team will of course be favourites heading into this season. All of the 2014 engine manufacturers will have found development improvements throughout last season ready for the 2015 units, but the supposed freeze on engines has changed significantly since then. Ferrari highlighted a loophole in the rules that the FIA has since acknowledged exists without closing. The manufacturers all get a certain amount of "tokens" they can use to update various individual components between power units. It ensures that a certain amount (around 50%) remains unchanged from engine unit to the next years version. 


What Ferrari highlighted however is that the 2015 units do not need to be submitted prior to the first race of the season. It means that the teams are able to start the season with an engine that benefits from some of the tokens but not all of them. They can then implement those tokens later in the year, thereby giving themselves a second update to the unit. Honda were initially denied this, having no 2014 engine unit homologated and therefore needing to provide their final design prior to the Australian Grand Prix. Even with an extra year of development work, this would seriously hurt Honda with the expected early season teething issues that we saw all teams suffer together last year.
Honda and the FIA have come to an agreement that will allow them to also develop their power unit at some stage within the 2015 season. It will be a welcome update to the rules after suffering electrical issues at the young drivers test in Abu Dhabi. There will be many anxious faces at both McLaren and Honda when winter testing begins next week. They need to cover good ground if the engine is to get relevant miles prior to the season, with reliability problems a likelihood at the start of the season. The mileage in these test days could dictate just how long their struggles last. 
With all of the other teams on the grid, we have a decent chance of guessing exactly where they should be come the start of the season. McLaren excluded, Lotus are expected to be the real change as the new Mercedes deal alone should see them move towards the front of the grid. Force India are another team hoping that they can benefit from McLaren's expected slow start to move above them, having lost out on beating them to 5th in the constructors standings last year. Presuming then that the other teams ahead of McLaren in 2014 don't lose ground instead of gaining it, it could leave McLaren with only the Sauber and Toro Rosso teams behind them, along with Marussia (which will likely be called Manor if returning) and Caterham should they find financial backers. 
New signing Fernando Alonso has already ruled out wins in 2015, though I expect that is a tactic to lower expectations ahead of the unknown. The Spaniard has joined from Ferrari in the pursuit of a team and car he feels will give him the platform to fight for a world championship once more. He is a driver that will give a team that push just with his presence, taking both Renault and his first spell at McLaren as examples of that. Button has been retained alongside him, an experience the team will be grateful for with the Honda's installation tasks. The pairing itself will be interesting to watch throughout 2015, with Alonso thoroughly beating Kimi Raikkonen in 2014, and Jenson Button giving Lewis Hamilton a harder time than people would have expected throughout the 3 years they were team mates.
It is clear than that there are many unknowns going into 2015 for both McLaren and Honda, so it certainly seems like they will be starting on the back foot. The team themselves will have a good idea of where they stand, and the pre-season tests will go some way in sharing that information with the public. Given the nature of all testing though, we will have to wait for the first qualifying session before we really know how well Honda have done in preparing their unit. The launch of the MP4-30 on Thursday is the most eagerly awaited of new machines, but Honda will hope it is not also the most over-rated.