McLaren-Honda kicked off the 2017 F1 Championship with a relatively trouble-free first day’s practice for the Australian Grand Prix. The team spent the first session focusing on capturing aero data, fitting large aero rakes to Stoffel Vandoorne’s car for the opening run. For FP2, the engineers worked on set-up balance before switching to tyre evaluation work over a long run.
Fernando Alonso finished the second session in 12th position, with team-mate Stoffel in 17th.
“After the difficulties of winter testing, it was satisfying to conclude today’s free practice sessions with minimal disruption", said Eric Boullier, the team's Racing Director.
"In fact, we got plenty of laps under our belts and were able to complete the run programme on both cars today. So that was a steady step forward.
“Today was really about evaluating and measuring the effectiveness of a number of new parts, which we achieved in the first session. For FP2, we started to make more meaningful adjustments to the cars’ set-up, and concluded the day with some long runs.
“It’s still too early to get an accurate read on where we stand, but, all things considered, this was a pleasing first day.”
Boullier's counterpart at Honda, Yusuke Hasegawa shared the optimistic sentiments following 8 very difficult days of pre-season testing.
“It’s good to finally be back out on track at a race weekend, and kick off the season. It’s been a tough week of preparations to put in place counter measures for the issues we had during winter testing.
“Today we were able to show certain advances from Barcelona regarding reliability, completing FP1 and FP2 without any major issues. For tomorrow’s qualifying, we still have some more room for improvement with mapping for better driveability, and of course, we are not satisfied with our current position. We will work hard during FP3 together with McLaren to find the best set-up.”
High pressure on power unit
However, the chief of Honda's F1 programme didn't deny there were still big issues to resolve, not the least with the vibrations that have caused the team so many headaches in the second week of testing at Barcelona.
"The vibration was not that much of a problem today. However, there was a little bit at the time of the up-shift, so if we solve that then we may earn a little more laptime."
Indeed, onboard footage confirmed extremely strange upshift noises in the car, especially in the higher range. It is believed that Honda has reduced the rev limit to reduce vibrations and increase reliability for the time being.
About the exact causes of the vibrations, we can only make educated guesses. It does look increasingly likely however that the team's issues come from resonance between the vibrations of the engine and the McLaren-developed gearbox. And while McLaren may have expected similar vibration to last seasons, Honda's new engine concept - including a split turbo - may well have shifted this behaviour.
It doesn't look like Honda are the sole party to blame here, as Hasegawa also said publicly after winter testing that riding the kerbs may have caused quite a bit of the issues too. All sorts of vibrations "caused cracks in a carbon pipe on the side of the car – with the harness getting detached.
"It is also certain that the cars rode over the kerbs [in Barcelona] and this caused some vibration. If we have such a weakness in the chassis, then it is worrying."
Next engine spec to increase output
On the power output side, Hasegawa admitted the engine output is not up to par.
"The power difference is big," he explained. "To raise the power it is necessary to raise the combustion efficiency, but to do that you have to change the hardware of the current power unit."
As already confirmed ahead of the season, Honda is preparing a considerable engine upgrade. The company is "hoping" it will be ready in time for the Monaco Grand Prix. Development is reportedly well underway, but it still means that McLaren Honda will have to focus on fixing reliability and optimizing the current package for at least the first 5 races.