It may seem like a simple technical reunion, but the implications of the 2015 Mclaren-Honda partnership are more significant than you may realize. Forget 1988-1992. The past is done and will never happen again. Mclaren, and Honda for that matter, are not ones to dwell on the past. While it is nice to remember those historic seasons, when Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost won every championship besides the final one of the partnership, it makes no sense to believe for a second that their history somehow gives them a divine guarantee of success for the future. There is no manifest destiny granted to either of these companies guiding them to victory. Honda can come into the 2015 season, however, assured in the fact that they will be judged by that very success years and years ago. Expectations, consequently, are stratospheric with over 20 months to go before the first Mclaren-Honda is to hit the track in over 20 years.
So, we now have to patiently wait for arguably the most historic car/engine partnership to emerge from the shadow of nostalgia into the light of reality. It is all very metaphoric and gooey, but the hard facts are that Honda have a lot to live up to. Not only are they under pressure to replicate the sheer dominance of the late 80’s, but they must also prove that they even belong in the sport.
Indeed, their very credibility came under fire in the first decade of this century during an adventure that started out as a whimsical dip of the toe in the sport. Once their role as engine supplier proved a relative success up against the might of the established order, especially their dynamite 2004 season when primary team BAR finished second in the Contructors’ championship and third in the Drivers’ championship with Jenson Button, the team went all in and undertook the Herculean task of team ownership. From 2006-2008, the team formerly known as BAR-Honda became just Honda.
Things started relaitvely slowly with the odd podium on the cards every once in a while, but Jenson Button’s unexpected win in Hungary sealed the team’s place in the sport, at least for the rest of that season. The team’s fortunes took an unexpected and dramatic turn for the worse the following season. What was once a respectable podium finishing and one-time race winning car, became a machine more known for its ability to test a driver’s skill behind the wheel than easy-to-drive race winner. To sum up, 2007 and 2008 were disasters. Honda completely wrote off the 2008 season to prepare for the regulations changes for 2009.
With their reputations and egos dented, Honda took its final bow on the Formula One calendar at the end of 2008. Would Honda have done as good a job as Brawn during the 2009 campaign? Perhaps not. The Honda engine was not as strong as the Mercedes engine that replaced it, and this might have allowed Red Bull to get ahead in both championships that year. They would not have failed, however. This, and only this, can be Honda’s glimmer of hope as they embark on the 2015 season.
There is a potential problem facing Honda as they prepare to enter the Formula One championship once again. They need only glance at the situation Renault finds themselves in at the moment to realize the downsides of merely supplying engines to teams rather than running a factory team of their own.
This particular situation Renault is unfortunately caught up in is one of under-representation. With the budget of a midfield team, Renault is subject to something a step below neglect. Because they no longer run their own team, the ended their full ownership in 2010, they gave up their political pulling power. The idea in Renault’s head was that they would, by providing engines to more teams, sell more road cars. The reality, though, is that the exposure, while significant, is going largely unnoticed. The fact that Infiniti, the luxury car branch of Nissan, is taking an increasingly large share of the credit for Red Bull’s success means that Nissan sales are growing rather than the real moneymaker, Renault. There is a reason there is a Sebastian Vettel version of the Infiniti FX50 rather than a Renault 208.
Another downfall of Renault’s situation is that, unlike Mercedes and Ferrari who run their own factory teams, they have no political power. Their budget would suggest otherwise, but Renault personnel have to work extremely hard to get their voices heard, then only for those voices to be ignored.
This is something Honda will have to be wary of. If they go back into the sport knowing that their political representation will be even less significant than that of Renault then there will be no problems. If Honda gets too greedy too early, then they will have a rude awakening. Perhaps if teams like Williams and Lotus, rumored to be in the running for future Honda engine deals, get their contracts then perhaps that will increase Honda’s credibility in the paddock. Who knows, if things go well enough, Honda may even consider running their own team. They are one of the few companies that still believes in the race car to road car correlation of Formula One. Teams like Porsche and BMW have decided the expenditure is not worth the “benefits” to car sales and technology development. They have gone down the sports car route, largely considered more beneficial to road car technological development.
For the first few years of their return, Honda will look at these factors as secondary. They need to first focus on making their partnership with Mclaren a success. They have all the ingredients to ignite another Formula One dynasty, one in which the might of Red Bull is toppled. We won’t know for sure if they partnership will prove fruitful until March of 2015, but you can be confident in the fact that the spotlight will never be off Honda until they day they decide to leave the sport once again.