What was once a fearsome title, McLaren-Honda, has diminished these past three seasons. Honda’s return to its most successful F1 entry format as an engine supplier, Initially this gave a sense of foreboding to its rivals. As the Japanese giant had an extra year to look at the first generation of 1.6l hybrid power units and develop its own accordingly. While McLaren, Honda’s most successful chassis partner, was no longer the Mercedes works team and the reduced influence it had over its power unit watered down its chances to be competitive. Reunifying these unarguably great companies made sense from a racing heritage perspective and a perfect match from a contemporary point of view.
The reality was far different, even at the first test, which was in Abu Dhabi in an end of season test in 2014. What was supposed to be a simple test of the new power unit in a revised 2014 chassis to kick off the on-track partnership, was a failure that saw the car barely able to run or emerge from the garage for long periods. Pre-season 2015 was a similar disaster and through the first year, reliability, engine power, energy recovery system were all well below expectations. This continued into 2016, with again major redesigns along the way; outright power, energy recovery were improved, but handicapped by fuel consumption and again reliability. 2017 with the abandoning of the token development system by the FIA, suggested that the problems endemic in the old power unit and the technical partnership would be resolved and we would have Honda join Mercedes and Ferrari as a competitive F1 power unit supplier. On the Honda side, over the winter an all-new PU was created, with the rules now allowing free development to the engine throughout the year. Rather than being limited by a ‘token’ system, that sought to cap costs by restricting unabated engine development. The new PU discards some of the turbo and MGU sizing issues of the past, adopting new combustion technology. Potentially this should be the PU that brings Honda back to the fore with power, energy recovery and fuel consumption.
From these exclusive pictures, we can see the Honda is a very different PU to that used in the first two seasons. The layout is new, with the turbo compressor is on the front of the engine, rather than tucked into the “V”. This allows the compressor to be larger and better cooled, while also straightening the path from the turbo to the intercooler. Additionally, the turbo can be mounted lower, further easing packaging and Centre of Gravity height. Above new inlet larger plenums are no longer forced to sit high over the turbo, so the set-up is very different and quite Mercedes-like. There are two near separate plenums, one for each cylinder bank, each fed by a dedicated duct coming from the intercooler. Ahead of the engine a new oil tank wraps around the turbo compressor.
Pre-season testing, this year consisted of just eight days, with two four-day tests interrupted by only single weekend. What’s more, the new season gave the teams new tyres and very different chassis to contend with, of almost any season in memory the demand to hit the ground running was critical to having a good chance in the championship. But, alas the ground wasn’t hit running, indeed running was very much in short supply. From the first day, an oil tank problem prevented running and forced a rapid redesign, this break down requiring an engine change, never a quick job with the current complex power units and with a new car. With oil supply problems resolved, longer runs were soon cut short with electrical problems, again engine swaps being the route to quicker resolutions rather than stripping the power unit down to component level. After the eight days of testing had passed, the pairing had used more than one PU per day! When we consider the rules only allow for five PUs for the entire season, before grid penalties are imposed, this is clearly a pressing issue. One that the Team boss Zak Brown refused to call a crisis. But if it looks, smells and feels like a crisis, then it’s a crisis.
Its transpired that the electrical issue is the symptom of a deeper-seated cause, engine vibration. The new engine with its new pre-chamber lean-burn combustion technology was shaking the electrical installation in a way that it hadn’t before. Wires and sensors were failing and this kept the car in the garage. Through its first two seasons the Honda engine had always been noted for a more raucous engine note, on the throttle and especially at part throttle. Using cylinder cutting as a turbo anti-lag solution, this meant at partial load the throttles were wide open, but the engine wasn’t firing all six cylinders. This gives the driver the power level asked for at the throttle pedal, but only a few cylinders were firing, the others being allowed to be just pumping air to keep the turbo spinning. This is a common WRC anti lag technology and found an alternative application when F1 cars used exhaust gases to blow the diffuser (cold blowing). It’s an aggressive solution and one that gave the engine its typical note and vibration. From what I heard of the Honda on track this season already, the note is still distinctive, but not as aggressive as before. As mentioned earlier, fuel consumption was the bug bear of the 2016 power unit. Rules introduced with these new power units in 2014, limited fuel flow with just 100kg/hr instantaneous fuel flow, some 60% of what had gone before. The V8s produced some 350hp per litre with unlimited fuel in 2013, these units are now nearer 500hp/l albeit aided by a turbo charger but with far less fuel. The modern F1 engine’s efficiency is incredible, nearly 50% of the fuel is converted into power, a step increase in what’s gone before, in F1 or any other combustion engine. To make power with so little fuel, you cannot simply burn less fuel, the air-fuel ratio would be to lean and the engine would suffer overheating, knock and a lack of power. Mercedes took on a combustion technology from the start of 2014 that allowed lean combustion but still lots of power, Ferrari followed in mid-2015 and Renault in mid-2016. Leaving Honda on the back foot, running a conventional open combustion chamber and suffering fuel efficiency problems in the race as a result. Ironically, this pre-chamber technology (inaccurately termed Turbulent jet ignition TJI by the media, which is a Mahle branded system used by Ferrari) was used on early Honda Civics, indeed the Civic name was coined from the CVCC acronym Honda branded as their pre-chamber technology. (I’ve explained pre-chamber fully in another article.) It’s understood the switch in combustion and anti-lag turbo technology changed the vibration and lead to the problems. This has been widely reported as the engine is now vibrating and this was not expected nor predicted. All combustion engines vibrate, the current 90-degree V6 flat plane crank F1 engines all vibrate, this is unavoidable and for years the teams have sought to manage the rest of the car’s systems around whatever vibration is present. Over the past few decades, F1 engines have switched from V12, to V10, to V8 and more tightly specific V8’s, before the current V6 hybrids were introduced. Along the way, the change in engine design also changed the vibrations, both the frequency, amplitude and direction of the oscillations have caused problems, from bits breaking, oil pumps falling off and even rear view mirror resonating at speed. The first task for teams testing new engine installations is to measure vibrations. So, it’s clear that this is a change in vibration not something completely new, a subtle but important difference. With vibration changes also comes the risk of running the engine too hard, so the power unit was almost certainly on a safer power setting and not full qualifying mode during the periods it was on track. So, to retain ‘reliability’ Honda haven’t been able to expose just how much better a power unit this could be. So, for now the finger pointers suggest the PU is simply down on power, rather than temporarily handicapped. Why this wasn’t picked up in the buildup to the season is the bigger question. Clearly Honda tests its engines on Dynos over in Sakura, along with the wide range of data gathered vibrations should be part of the analysis given over to McLaren. However, we need to remember that the test bed installations the engines run on during development are very different to the installation in a car. While the dyno facility will have deep concrete foundations and substantial fixtures to hold the engine, an F1 is far less stiff and jumps about on track on bulbous tyres, springs and dampers. Historically where the engine and chassis meet for the time is on track, but before now track testing was more common and development periods much longer. This year the engine and chassis were mated with just eight days of testing, in-season a new power unit update may be run for the first-time Friday with a view to racing on Sunday, lead times have eroded and the risks are ever higher. McLaren and Honda aren’t the first to experience this problem, no doubt Ferrari and Mercedes have suffered to a lesser extent too, but Renault had a spate of new part failures with Red Bull and this partly lead to the breakdown of the relationship a few seasons ago. What Red Bull found is that parts proven by Renault at Viry weren’t performing or at least performing reliably when installed on the car. So, Red Bull followed what Mercedes and Ferrari had been doing and installed a full car dyno, often termed a virtual test track. The austrian Company AVL Racing are at the forefront of this technology (www.avl.com/racing).
As teams, cannot simply go out and test their car and power unit in track, they run the entire assembly in a simulator rig. This isn’t the driver simulator, but cross between and engine/gearbox dyno on a seven-post rig. A near complete car is assembled, put on the hydraulic stilts, the engine fired up, the gears selected and the whole thing goes through a test routine. It’s as close to full car on track testing as we can currently get. Of course, the rig cannot achieve the 5G dynamic forces that a car gets from accelerating, braking or cornering, but at least a percentage of these forces can be fed in to get data on how the car is performing. Red Bull now prove and sign off every update on this rig, the installation was done at Red Bulls request and cost. At the end of the day it’s up to the team to take control of the engine proving process, just as they would with the quality control of any part brought into the to the factory from an external supplier from brakes, suspension to fasteners bought in. This issue is symptomatic of the McLaren Honda partnership and the problems it brings. Many people simply cite the distance as the problem, the engines developed in Japan and the chassis in England. But the internet connected systems means that they share the same design space and applications, data can be shared instantly, the problem isn’t the distance, but the lead taken in the project. McLaren rightly need to design the chassis and any parts that come from the power unit and need to integrate with it. This leaves Honda free to develop the power unit within the specifications agreed between the pair. Honda are well known to take their own approach to all aspects within their remit, The ‘Honda way’ as they call is adopted from the main automotive business, Honda uses F1 to train its engineers, they are cycled from motorcycles or road cars into motorsport and often back out again. They rarely bring in external experts and experience from outside Honda. In some respects, Honda, does F1 as much as a training exercise, than a means to win races to promote the brand. Therein lies a problem that their partner has to own and work around. So, its McLaren that must react, who must direct Honda within the power unit project, is needs to test anything coming from Honda, as explained before, it can’t point the finger, surely key to much of this is the AVL test rig. What now for the partnership?
It’s surprising that for a vibration issue causing sensors to fall out, that the response from fans and media has been so alarmist. So, what options are open to McLaren to get back on track, literally! Much talked and rumored about is the nuclear option, drop Honda Mid-season, as though the problems are wholly coming from Japan. With the departure of Manor, sensationalists have pointed out that there’s a spare supply of Mercedes AMG power units gathering dust in Brixworth. Could McLaren fit these to the MCL32? Considering the just technical feasibility, not the commercial, political and regulatory aspects, yes, it’s ‘possible’. The 2014 power unit regulations were purposely worded to make the installation of the different power units identical in some respects. The bolt pattern for the engine to connect to the chassis and gearbox are identical, the crank shaft axis is specified, and some of the general layout of the turbo and exhausts is ‘similar’. But the detail engineering to pair a chassis designed for tightly fitting Honda to then accommodate a Mercedes makes this a huge task. With the will and resources, yes it could be done, but at what cost? Half a season of development wasted on powertrain installation and therefore a subsequent lack of focus on performance, just when the rules are providing rich pay back for aero and suspension development. To me this is unlikely to be an option. For McLaren and Honda to part ways at the end of the year is another near-nuclear option. But to do this would see McLaren take a reverse step back to a customer engine supply, just the reason they moved away from Mercedes in the first place. Doing this this effectively says “we are happy not to win” whatever marketing spin they might put on it. If, Not Mercedes or Ferrari/Renault, which is effectively the same ‘customer team’ scenario. What other power unit supply options are there? With talk of BMW wanting to enter the sport and despite the downscaled/green-focused motorsport strategy for this year, Audi are still constantly rumored to be on the cusp of an F1 entry. Could they or another manufacturer come into the sport with a power unit? Indeed, could McLaren even make its own power unit. With all of these options time, and money are the key issue, not least the boardroom desire to do so. I couldn’t see a new F1 power unit being developed between now and pre-season testing next year, nor that one being better than a fourth-generation Honda let alone the incumbent power units. So, what does that leave us? Honda short and medium term! McLaren could continue to press Honda to make improvements, which is effectively maintaining the status quo. Or, McLaren can take the lead, manage Honda and prove parts on a virtual test track, that for me seems the best route out of this. The vibration\electrical issue can be resolved short term with fixes to the loom and installation. Then a rapid resolution to the source vibration issue, which will then release the potential of the new power unit. This gives short term pain, but in the medium term gets McLaren to where it needs to be. Fault may be apportioned after all of this, but clearly both parties are to blame, and these issues are not new this year, but have been ongoing since test day 1 of the partnership. For those with longer memories, Honda’s previous entries into F1 in all forms have had the same issues and these lessons have been there to learn.