At face value, McLaren-Honda’s start to the season is the stuff of nightmares. A once mighty and feared partnership reduced to battling with the perennial tail-enders. The gushingly upbeat comments regarding the potential of the ‘size zero’ experiment and Fernando Alonso proclaiming the good times are coming seems at odds with reality. For McLaren fans and any neutral hoping to see more teams challenge Mercedes, there is however data to suggest the team is making progress.
The gap is closing
Comparing McLaren’s qualification times with the benchmark result in Q1 of the opening races looks promising. In Melbourne Jenson Button’s fastest time in Q1 was 2.9 seconds off Lewis Hamilton’s top of the chart best. By the Malaysian Grand Prix the gap between Button’s pace and Hamilton’s in Q1 was down to 2.3 seconds. During qualifying for today’s Chinese Grand Prix Button’s time was only 1.1 seconds off the pace.
Looking at the cut off times to move in to Q2 and the signs are also positive. A deficit of 1.5 seconds in Australia had shortened to 0.6 seconds by Malaysia and a tantalizing 0.3 seconds in Shanghai. Barring other factors coming in to play and assuming Force India/Toro Rosso/Sauber do not improve significantly, McLaren should be vying for a position in Q2 by the time we reach Barcelona in May.
Now for the negatives
Admittedly the calculations are crude. McLaren could be running lower fuel, the leading teams may well have been protecting their tyres or combinations of both and other considerations. Plus there are other statistics that do not paint as positive a picture.
Speed trap times in particular are not good. The McLaren’s were around 13kph down on the top speed in Sepang. At points this weekend that had extended to 16kph.
The Woking team have undoubtedly a lot more hard work to do but the rate of progress, based on the above, is impressive. Rumours swirled in China that the Honda power unit was running close to full power. Being unable to get 100% has been suggested as the root of their lack of pace. If the rumours from China are true it puts all of the above in a completely different and worrying light. However, given those speed trap deficits it seems unlikely. And that combined with the lap time improvements is definite cause for optimism.