McLaren are not good enough - Eric Boullier

By Andrew BensonChief F1 writer
Jenson Button in action during the Spanish Grand Prix
McLaren have so far failed to score a point this season

Struggling McLaren are this season targeting a repeat of their fifth-place championship finish from last year, according to racing director Eric Boullier.

McLaren, in their first year with new engine partner Honda, are ninth in the table with no points after five races.

Asked where he saw McLaren by the end of the season he said: "Maybe it looks stupid, but fighting for the position we finished last year.

"It is not good enough - I want to win and I hope we will win. But I have to say something realistic."

McLaren have not won a race since 2012 and their last championship victory was in 2008.

But, in an exclusive interview with BBC Sport, Boullier said they and Honda can make significant strides in performance over the course of this season towards their ultimate goal of winning the world title together.

What have McLaren brought to Spain?

He said: "Let's say by the second part of the season after the summer break we are at all the races comfortably in the top-10 qualifying shoot-out and fighting for big points - I'm not saying the podium. That for me would be a big, big achievement."

The Frenchman described the team's troubled pre-season testing programme as a "disaster" but insisted the team's recovery plan was now "falling into place".

Boullier revealed:

-The progress the team are making with both chassis and Honda engine

-Why Fernando Alonso is happy despite the team's poor performance

-The extent of the task faced by Honda on their return to F1

Progress from Honda

Eric Boullier
Boullier joined McLaren in January 2014 after leaving Lotus a few weeks earlier

Boullier declined to give an exact answer when asked how the performance gap between McLaren and Mercedes is split between car and engine, although he admits that both need considerable work.

Honda started working on its new turbo hybrid F1 engine only two years ago, while Mercedes has been developing its since 2010.

Questioned on the wisdom of Honda entering this season after such little development time, Boullier says: "Everyone can have their opinion about the strategy but you can understand why there is so much potential to unlock and why the more mature the project will be, the more we will catch up."

One anecdote from inside the team reveals just how far behind its rivals Honda is.

Early in the season, the McLaren would stutter badly as it was pulling out of the garage, leaving intermittent tyre marks as it did so.

An engineer attempts to clean tyre marks from the garage
McLaren's 2015 car was stuttering as it left the pit garage - something Boullier described as "agonising"

This was because Honda's litany of problems meant its engineers had not had the chance to develop a separate programme for the launch settings in the garage, compared to the start of the race.

Boullier says he and McLaren chairman Ron Dennis intervened because it made such a bad impression.

"Ron and I actually asked the engineers to set up a map to get out of the garage to stop the car looking agonising, stupidly pulling away," Boullier says.

"It is not good to see your car going - cough, cough, cough. Look at the other cars, they pull away nicely. So you have to do it."

He denies rumours that this made the actual race start in Bahrain less than optimal because there had not been time to do two new maps.

Honda started the season with an engine that was unreliable and something over 200bhp down on power at the first race in Australia.

But Boullier says the engine has improved by "50%" since then.

Jenson Button wins the 2012 Brazilian Grand Prix
McLaren have failed to win since Jenson Button's victory at the Brazilian Grand Prix in 2012

That would put the latest Honda in the region of 110bhp down on the standard-setting Mercedes engine at last weekend's Spanish Grand Prix.

Calculating on the basis of the established lap-time offset for engine power, that suggests that of the 3.1-second gap in qualifying between Mercedes and McLaren in Barcelona, about 1.7-1.8secs is down to the engine.

A new car-design concept

Following two poor cars in 2013 and 2014, Boullier made major structural changes inside McLaren over the last year.

Jenson Button drives Mclaren's 2013 car in New Delhi
McLaren also produced underwhelming cars in 2013 and 2014

McLaren have moved away from chasing peak downforce towards a more consistent, stable aerodynamic design, an approach led by ex-Red Bull head of aerodynamics Peter Prodromou, now McLaren's chief engineer.

Boullier has been bullish about the progress McLaren have made as a result, saying that "performance-wise we are much better".

Asked to quantify that statement, he says: "I don't know, to be honest. Let's say at least the same, which is not bad for a completely new concept."

"It is much easier to drive, which allows the driver to go to the limit of the car, while last year they couldn't."

Bearing in mind the engine-performance deficit, though, McLaren do indeed appear to have made significant progress with the car.

Last year, taking into account they had the Mercedes engine, the chassis alone was about two seconds off the pace for much of the year. Now, the deficit seems to be not far off half that.

Stuttering progress

McLaren's gap to pole position reduced by about one percentage point at each of the first four races - from 105.9% in Australia to 102.7% in Bahrain.

Jenson Button during qualifying for the Spanish Grand Prix
McLaren reached the second qualifying stage in Barcelona with Alonso and Button qualifying 13th and 14th respectively

They made a breakthrough at the last race in Spain, where both cars made it out of first qualifying and Alonso and team-mate Jenson Button qualified 13th and 14th. That followed Alonso getting the car into the second knock-out part of qualifying for the first time in Bahrain at the preceding race.

However, McLaren's percentage gap to pole position actually increased in Spain -to 103.7%.

Boullier says the explanation for this is that other teams took to Barcelona bigger upgrade packages than McLaren, describing the major bodywork revisions on the Ferrari as "a B-spec car".

"Aerodynamically we are still immature, so we have much more performance coming in the next races," Boullier said, adding that Honda had not yet used any of its available performance-related 'tokens' ascribed to engine developments.

Alonso's state of mind

McLaren made a significant statement of intent in signing Alonso last year - and the Spaniard, still regarded by many as the most complete driver on the grid, took a big risk in joining them.

Fernando Alonso in conversation with a McLaren engineer
Alonso has won two F1 drivers' World Championships

Alonso chose to leave Ferrari two years before the end of his contract because he had lost faith they could challenge for the title before the end of 2016.

So when his replacement Sebastian Vettel won the second race of the season, many concluded Alonso had made a bad career choice.

But the two-time champion insists he has no regrets, and says he left because he "did not want to finish second for another two years". This week he went as far as to say "nothing has changed" at Ferrari after Vettel finished 46 seconds behind race-winner Nico Rosberg in Spain.

Boullier says Alonso's peace of mind is not just a public face, adding that the driver is "relieved to have ended a story [at Ferrari] that was very energy-consuming - not winning, getting frustrated for many reasons".

Alonso's trip down F1 memory lane

He points out that Alonso has referred to his childhood attraction to the first iteration of McLaren-Honda, which dominated F1 from 1988-91, and what he sees as "unfinished business" with McLaren, whom he left on bad terms after a tumultuous season together in 2007.

Boullier says: "He loves this brand and this team. Obviously Ferrari was special for him, like any driver. But he had a special affection for McLaren.

"Then on the professional level, we are very transparent. The drivers are listened to. We don't lie to them, which is very important. They are trusted and they trust us, and that is a big difference with any other team.

"So he knows what we are doing. He trusts where we are going and he knows the quality of the people."

Button and the 2016 driver line-up

Alonso is earning an annual salary of $40m (£26.6m) on a three-year deal until 2017.

Button, though, is on what is called a "one-plus-one" deal - this year, with an option on McLaren's side to retain him for 2016 - and has taken a pay cut from $15m (£10m) to $10m (£6.7m).

Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso
Jenson Button has managed to match Fernando Alonso in qualifying

Boullier says he is not surprised that Button has matched Alonso in qualifying so far this year.

"People consider Fernando as one of the best drivers and they are right," he says. "But it is underestimating Jenson a little bit.

"When he was team-mates with Lewis Hamilton, he was matching Lewis's pace, won against him, sometimes out-qualified him.

"Jenson is a great driver and there is a very good working relationship between them. I was very careful at the beginning to not have any stress between them. Today, they respect each other. They work for the team and the team works for them, and it's fine.

'Scary' car rattles Alonso & Button

"From that balance you can see both are talented enough to match each other and emulate each other a little bit."

But Boullier will not say whether this has changed anything about 2016, for which the team also have as options reserve driver Kevin Magnussen and their under-contract and highly rated GP2 championship leader Stoffel Vandoorne.

"There is no plan, no discussion so far," Boullier says.


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