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18 Thoughts from F1 2018: Honda finally show the potential that McLaren saw

Written by  Dec 19, 2018

When McLaren announced they would be teaming up with Honda in mid-2013, it brought back memories of their glory days together in the late 1980s, early 90s.

A time when Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost went head-to-head both as teammates and rivals with the Anglo-Japanese alliance winning on each occasion.

1989 also saw the last of the great turbo cars, which Honda were the kings of, therefore, feeling championship success wasn't possible as a Mercedes customer team, it made sense for McLaren to rekindle that relationship once again.

After three years and a lot of frustration, however, it was all over and a once-dominant partnership was no more with Honda's reputation in tatters.

The company had done all it could to meet the demands of McLaren, accommodating their 'size zero' design philosophy and trying everything to close the gap to the rest but it didn't work out.

They found refuge at Toro Rosso for 2018, unwilling to give up on the project, and now 12 months on from that divorce, all of a sudden it is McLaren starting to look like the fools.

Honda was given the freedom to produce the best engine they could without the design restrictions placed upon them and as soon as pre-season testing it was clear, major progress had been made.

Combined with a chassis designed for good top speed, the power deficit, though still apparent, wasn't as detrimental and in Bahrain, on a circuit made up of long straights, Pierre Gasly produced Honda's best result since returning in 2015 with fourth, much to the delight of everyone.

Results like that weren't exactly common, but it was the promise of further improvements that drove Toro Rosso forward and when Honda brought an upgrade to Montreal, that was the signal for Red Bull to also make the move from Renault.

Gasly continued to take advantage when he could with notable performances in Monaco and Budapest and that only acted as further motivation at a time when the focus was on engine gains rather than results.

It wasn't until the 'Suzuka special' that Honda really started to show just how far they've come as both drivers capitalised on dodgy weather to make Q3. Though they would fall back during the race, that was a marker laid down for the future.

Gasly would score points again in Austin and Mexico, finishing no lower than 12th in the final five races as Toro Rosso became legitimate midfield contenders against Haas, Sauber, Force India and Renault.

Despite all that, some are still sceptical of Honda's potential and see Red Bull's rather loud screams of title expectations for 2019 as nothing more than bluster.

Of course, Christian Horner and Co. are doing it largely to underline their decision to split with Renault, but there is justification for it.

Honda is thought to be ahead of their French rivals already in terms of performance and they have a much bigger budget and resources with which to continue improving and close the gap to Mercedes and Ferrari.

Will they be a match for them at the start of next year? Probably not. But if they are within 20 horsepower or so, that is enough for the Red Bull chassis to make the difference and finally give F1 a three-team fight at the front.

2018 then was the year that McLaren was dreading, not only was their own car still uncompetitive despite moving to Renault but the same potential and knowledge that made Honda F1's benchmark three decades ago has finally been unleashed in the back of a rival car.

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