Formula 1

2016 Season Review – McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team – It’s getting better all the time

14 Mins read
A team group photo. Fernando Alonso, Stoffel Vandoorne and Jenson pose with their McLaren MP4-31 Hondas in front of the assembled team. Credit: McLaren Media Centre

#14 – Fernando Alonso – Spain – 20 Starts, 54 Points, Best Finish: 5th (Monaco, United States), Championship Position: 10th

#22 – Jenson Button – Great Britain – 21 Starts, 21 points, Best Finish: 6th (Austria), Championship Position: 15th

#47 – Stoffel Vandoorne – Belgium – 1 Start, 1 point, Best Finish: 10th (Bahrain), Championship Position: 20th

Three driver strategy. Credit: McLaren Media Centre

The McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team enjoyed a much more productive season in 2016, but the Woking based squad are still far from where they would like to be in the grand scheme of things.

Scoring points at thirteen out of the twenty-one races contested this season, they have made a significant improvement on 2015 (one of their least competitive outings in F1 history), when they only managed to get on the board at five grand prix.

McLaren are currently on a rapid progression curve and their potential is there for all to see, but they still have plenty to do to get themselves back into serious contention at the top. High hopes were once again expected, and although there were some high points, satisfaction levels were most likely at slow puncture status.

Round 1 – Australia

The first round of the season in Melbourne was an eye opener for both the team and driver Fernando Alonso, who was involved in one of the most terrifying accidents of the year.

Trying to pass Haas F1 Team driver Esteban Gutierrez on the run down to Turn 3, Alonso’s front right wheel tagged the right rear of the VF16, and he was launched into a ferocious airborne barrel roll, coming to rest upside down in the barriers.

The Spaniard miraculously escaped un-injured, but it was a scary moment as the cameras panned towards the crumpled wreckage. Though not visibly hurt, Alonso did sustain cracked ribs, which doctors felt was serious enough to not pass him fit to race at the following round in Bahrain, allowing McLaren protégé Stoffel Vandoorne to step up to the plate.

As the Spaniard was unable to complete the race and driver Jenson Button finished down in twelfth place, there were no points for McLaren in Australia.

Round 2 – Bahrain

With Alonso sat on the side-lines and available to assist with any issues across the weekend, Vandoorne was ready to make his F1 debut for the Woking based team in Bahrain.

Fortunately, it was a track the Belgian knew well and one where he had been successful in other formulas, so it was the perfect circuit for him to compete in his maiden grand prix.

Vandoorne got off to a great start by out qualifying team-mate Button on Saturday, and went on to beat the Brit on race day too, by finishing in tenth place and scoring McLaren’s first world championship point of their 2016 campaign.

It was a mature and confident drive from the young Belgian, who made some accomplished passes on his way to that final point scoring position, and looked very much at home behind the wheel of a F1 car.

Button in fairness was unable to do little to compete against his stand in team-mate, as the 2009 world champion was forced to retire the MP4-31 on lap seven, following a sudden power unit issue.

Round 3 – China

At the next round in China, despite showing flashes of brilliance, it was apparent that the McLaren Honda did not quite have the pace being enjoyed by its rivals, and it was another race without points for the Woking based team.

Alonso was back in the fray however, and both cars completed full race distance without any issues, a positive achievement for the team.

Round 4 – Russia

Team members congratulate Fernando Alonso on his sixth place finish. Credit: McLaren Media Centre

It was a much better outing for the squad in Russia however, with both drivers finishing in the points for the first time.

Profiting from the carnage at the front of the field, Alonso was able to launch himself up into the top ten at the start, and remained there for the entirety of the race, coming across the line in sixth place. Button meanwhile, took a while longer to get through the pack, but eventually made his way through to tenth place to score his first point of the 2016 season.

Round 5 – Spain

The Spanish Grand Prix was a tough one for the McLaren Honda squad, with Button just managing to scrape home in the points in ninth place despite experiencing a severe lack of grip.

It was a disappointing result for Alonso however, when the Spaniard was forced to retire from the race on lap 45, due to a software command issue that stopped the ICE, having looked like he would also finish inside the top ten.

The Woking based team had never expected to be strong around the Circuit de Catalunya-Barcelona, so to take points at all was a bonus.

Round 6 – Monaco

At Round 6 of the 2016 Formula 1 season, McLaren went from a bittersweet performance in Spain, to outright brilliance on the streets of Monte-Carlo.

Both drivers were able to come home in the points, despite experiencing tricky wet/dry conditions, with Alonso achieving a season’s best finish of fifth, whilst Button came home in ninth.

Alonso did extremely well to keep the likes of Sahara Force India F1 Team driver Nico Hulkenberg and Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula One Team driver Nico Rosberg behind him towards the end of the race, and the result showed that good, solid progress was being made by the Woking based team.

Round 7 – Canada

After the giddy heights of Monaco, the McLaren Honda Formula 1 team were brought back down to earth in Canada.

Button was forced to retire after just nine laps, when smoke and sparks began to fly from the back of his MP4-31 before the engine popped, and despite his best efforts the Honda power deficit meant that Alonso could only manage to finish as high as eleventh.

It was a disappointing result for the team, who had hoped to continue on their points scoring run in Montreal.

Round 8 – Azerbaijan

The inaugural race at the Baku City Street Circuit was always going to be a difficult one for the McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team, with its big long straights, so to finish out of the points once again was no real surprise, but it was nonetheless disappointing to be so close but yet so far once again.

A developing gearbox problem for Alonso meant he was asked to retire the car from the race for precautionary reasons, whilst Button crossed the line in eleventh, just missing out on the points, following a solid effort from the Brit from nineteenth on the grid, despite the MP4-31’s power deficit.

Round 9 – Austria

Jenson Button on track. Credit: McLaren Media Centre

The ninth round of the 2016 Formula 1 season was probably host to McLaren Honda’s finest performance of the year, the team even managing to beat both Williams Martini Racing cars on sheer pace alone.

Having secured third place on the grid for the start of the race after an epic qualifying session, that saw Button time his final run to perfection on a drying track, the Brit ran strongly throughout the race, making overtake after overtake count. He rose as high a fifth place at one point but was overtaken by Red Bull Racing driver Daniel Ricciardo towards the end, to secure sixth position at the chequered flag.

Alonso had also looked strong for most of the race, running inside the top ten alongside team-mate Button, unfortunately with just a few laps to go however, the Spaniard suffered an ES battery pack system failure, and was forced to retire. That was disappointing for the team, but on a positive note the car had been competitive throughout the grand prix.

Round 10 – Great Britain

The fast sweeps and long straights of Silverstone were never really going to play to the strengths of the MP4-31, and that showed in McLaren’s performance on race day.

The wet/dry conditions could have afforded the Woking based squad the opportunity to score some crucial points, but it was not to be as both drivers finished out of the points in twelfth and thirteenth.

Despite the result, there were some positives for McLaren to take away. They were able to take the fight to Williams, Force India and Scuderia Toro Rosso in the race, showing a much improved competitive edge to the MP4-31, and had it not been for an untimely spin for Alonso at turn one on lap 24, points may have been a possibility.

Round 11 – Hungary

Although it was mixed fortunes for the McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team in Hungary, they were easily the fourth best team on the grid for the majority of the weekend, giving a big boost in confidence to the Woking based squad.

It was a race filled with bad luck for Button, who on just lap four experienced a sensor failure that caused his brakes to stop working correctly. Due to safety concerns the team instructed the Brit how to resolve the issue over team radio, via the pit lane method, recently allowed under the new radio communication rules.

However, the stewards deemed they had still broken the rules in doing this, and despite Button already being dead last following the issue, they handed him a drive-through penalty.

After making up a few places once the problem was rectified, Button was then forced to retire on lap sixty after sustaining an oil leak.

Team-mate Alonso on the other-hand had a much better time at the Hungaroring. The Spaniard started from seventh on the grid, and was able to maintain that position through to the end of the race, as the MP4-31 held its own against their midfield rivals, with McLaren coming out on top ahead of Force India, Williams and Toro Rosso.

Round 12 – Germany

It was a solid day’s work for the McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team at the German Grand Prix. Who managed to bag an eighth place finish with driver Button, in a race where fuel saving and tyre management played a huge factor.

Both drivers ran inside the top ten for the majority of the race, after getting a good start, but whilst Button was able to control his performance to perfection, catching and overtaking Valtteri Bottas in the final laps, Alonso struggled towards the end of the grand prix and fell back to twelfth place at the chequered flag.

The solid progression being made with the MP4-31 now appears to be headed in the right direction.

Jenson Button on track. Credit: McLaren Media Centre

Round 13 – Belgium

The progress continued after the summer break with a further points haul at the Belgian Grand Prix, a feat that would not have been though possible at the start of the year, at a high speed track such as the Circuit de Spa Francorchamps.

Driver Alonso was able to recover from a back of the grid start, due to engine change penalties, to come home in a fine seventh place at the end of the race. It was an incident-packed grand prix, that the Spaniard was able to benefit from in his rise forward, the MP4-31’s new found pace allowing him to finish ahead of both Williams drivers, as well as a Scuderia Ferrari and a Red Bull,

Unfortunately for Button his race was more or less over before it started, when he was hit from behind by Manor Racing MRT driver Pascal Wehrlein at turn five, on the very first lap. The damage sustained to the rear of the car was too severe to allow the Brit to continue, and he retired from the race, having looked strong earlier in the weekend.

Round 14 – Italy

As predicted, the Cathedral of Speed that is Monza, was not one of the better suited tracks for the McLaren-Honda package, and neither of the team’s drivers were able to finish in the points at the Italian Grand Prix.

Having said that however, Button did well to recover to twelfth having been placed last at the end of the first lap, when he was pushed off track and into the gravel by Sauber F1 Team driver Felipe Nasr. The Brit was able to make some strong overtaking moves to launch himself through the order.

Alonso meanwhile started well but a delay at one of his pit stops, coupled with a less advantageous strategy, saw the Spaniard take fourteenth place at the chequered flag, a late switch of tyres with just a few laps remaining however, did allow the double world champion the ability to complete the fastest lap of the race!

Jenson Button also announced that he would not be racing in F1 in 2017, but at the time insisted it would not be the last time we saw him on track.

The Brit advised that he would instead be taking on an advisory/ambassador role with McLaren-Honda, whilst Vandoorne would be taking over as a full-time driver next year. Adding that he would be taking a one-year sabbatical, with a deal in place to drive for the team again in 2018, should both he and McLaren choose to take up that option.

It was an interesting and innovative deal, the like of which had not been seen before in F1.

Round 15 – Singapore

The Singapore Grand Prix saw McLaren Honda once again get one car home in the points, whilst the other struggled, a situation that was starting to become the norm for the Woking based team.

Button once again found himself involved in a first lap incident, tagging his front wing on the Williams of Bottas, who diverted into the Brit’s path when trying to avoid a collision with Hulkenberg.

The 2009 world champion pitted for repairs, before re-joining the race, however his efforts from there on in were compromised by brake-duct and bodywork damage that was reducing downforce. Due to worsening brake temperatures, Button’s engineers decided to stop the car as a precaution in the final stages of the race, another retirement to add to the Brit’s tally.

Alonso meanwhile had an entirely different experience. Having got off to a great start, moving him up to fifth place in the order, the Spaniard was able to maintain that position for most of the race, until he was caught by Sebastian Vettel and Max Verstappen towards the end. It was a fantastic performance from Alonso, who once again proved what a talented driver he is.

Round 16 – Malaysia

It was another strong double points finish for McLaren in Malaysia, a fantastic result considering Alonso had started from the back of the grid due to engine change penalties once again.

The Spaniard drove brilliantly to make up ten places on the first lap alone, managing to stay clear of the first corner accident up ahead, before entering the top ten with some classic Alonso manoeuvring.

The virtual safety car period worked to perfection for the double world champion, who was one of the drivers to benefit from its activation and gain a free pit stop, to see him soar up to seventh place by the chequered flag.

In complete contrast to his team-mate, Button lost out at the safety car period, having been on a two stop strategy to most other drivers three stop. The Brit made his second and final pit stop just minutes before the VSC was deployed, seeing those around him gain an unexpected free stop and move ahead of him by the end of the race. The 2009 world champion still managed to hold on to ninth however, to secure a good points haul for the Woking based team.

Round 17 – Japan

Credit: McLaren Media Centre

The Japanese Grand Prix was a race to forget for the McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team, and easily their most disappointing of the season so far, with both drivers finishing way down the order and out of the points in fifteenth and eighteenth place.

It was clear the layout of the Suzuka International Racing Course did not suit the Woking based squad’s package, they lacked downforce through the faster corners and were far from quick on race day.

It was a tough weekend for all, which McLaren hoped would be a one-off event.

Round 18 – USA

Credit: McLaren Media Centre

It was a much better outing for McLaren Honda at the United States Grand Prix just two weeks later, when they returned to point scoring ways, with a fifth and a ninth place, equalling their best result of the season so far.

Both drivers made up a number of places at the start following an underwhelming qualifying session on Saturday, avoiding the collisions up ahead to be running in ninth and eleventh after just a few laps.

Alonso once again lucked into a free pit stop to move up to seventh, before an entertaining battle with Felipe Massa and Carlos Sainz Jr saw him come through for fifth at the chequered flag.

The McLaren driver started out at the back of the trio and after waiting to see if Massa would make a pass on the Toro Rosso ahead of him, Alonso decided to take matters into his own hands with an opportunistic move on the Brazilian at turn fifteen. The two brushed wheels slightly, with the Williams driver sustaining a slow puncture.

Next up for the Spaniard was fellow countryman Sainz Jr who he had closed up on by the next lap. A move on the STR11 at the first corner was defended by the younger Spaniard, but Alonso made the pass stick at turn twelve, when he dived up the inside of the Toro Rosso to take the place. The McLaren driver was heard to shout “Yee-haw” over team radio as he moseyed on into the distance.

Button also had a strong race, making up ten places, having started from nineteenth on the grid. Both drivers drove fantastically to achieve the solid result, and showed that the MP4-31 package is improving race by race.

Round 19 – Mexico

After a strong race in Texas, it was back to the drawing board in Mexico, with both drivers unable to add to their points tally.

The Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez is a notoriously difficult track at which to overtake, a fact which frustrated both Alonso and Button as the race pace was clearly there. Nevertheless, they were able to battle for position and made up a couple of places each.

Alonso also had to have his power unit down tuned during the race due to an anomaly in the ICE, and Button showed a temperature rise in the ERS and was unable to use the maximum performance mode at the end of the race, both issues making things tricky for the drivers in their challenge, and twelfth and thirteenth were the best result they could manage.

Round 20 – Brazil

McLaren managed to salvage a solitary point from the Brazilian Grand Prix in treacherous conditions they had hoped would allow them to glean more on the points front.

The race was a crash filled event with several high speed accidents, leading to two race stoppages and the introduction of five safety cars, in what was a hugely delayed race, and for McLaren a largely forgettable one.

Alonso had been running inside the top ten until lap fifty-five, when a spin at turn thirteen, owing to the conditions, saw him fall down the order. A battling drive in the final laps, when he overtook seven cars in just fifteen laps, got the Spaniard back into contention, to claim the final points position.

Button struggled with his car all weekend, unable to find a good set up, and no matter which tyre he switched on to, the Brit just could not get the rear-end to work, and eventually finished down in sixteenth place.

Round 21 – Abu Dhabi – Season finale

The final round of the 2016 Formula 1 season saw the McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team secure sixth place in the constructor’s championship, by scoring one final point in Abu Dhabi.

Unfortunately for Button, his final F1 race was over after just twelve laps when the right-front suspension of his MP4-31 failed, after clattering a kerb. The Brit was not downhearted however, and spent the remainder of the grand prix with friends and family.

A glorious seventeen season career put to bed for the final time.

Alonso battled hard to secure a tenth place finish, in what was a difficult race for the Spaniard who was never really able to challenge the Williams or Force India’s in this race. He certainly tried however, and almost caught Massa on the final lap. After clawing back, a fifteen second gap when he switched onto a fresh set of primes.

Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi. Credit: McLaren Media Centre. World Copyright: Steven Tee/LAT Photographic – ref: Digital Image _R3I2597

Overall, this season has been a positive one for the McLaren-Honda Formula 1 Team, who have shown much improvement and progress this year in comparison to 2015, one of their worst ever seasons in terms of performance.

There is still some way to go before they will be fighting for championships again, but one thing we can all be sure of, is that will work hard to come back fighting, with a more competitive package.

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