McLaren plan to do a double engine change in its two cars ahead of the Belgian Grand Prix this weekend, after it was hit with grid penalties for Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button for introducing a seventh engine for Spa, using three development tokens, this morning.
With its drivers set to start the race at Spa at the rear of the field anyway thanks to the first penalty, McLaren will trigger a second penalty by again changing engines after FP2. The second penalty will be redundant, but it is a clever plan to expand the pool of race engines it has available for the rest of the season.
The move comes after the clarification by the FIA last month over engine penalties and despite a rule change that allowed Honda to run a sixth “free” engine without penalty. the team received 50 places worth of grid demotions for running a fifth engine of the year at the Austrian Grand Prix. McLaren’s decision is completely legal in the regulations, but could be considered a slightly cynical ploy.
The Japanese company had spent some of its development tokens to modify the internal combustion engine element of its V6 turbo engine ahead of the race at Spa and hopes were high that McLaren could close the performance gap to the front-running teams.
But even before the engine changes and penalties were officially announced, the team’s racing director, Eric Boulllier, explained that the high speed nature of the Belgian track means that McLaren will have to wait until races like Singapore before it can hope to compete with teams currently further up the grid.
He said: “Spa is a truly spectacular circuit – arguably the best on the calendar for many – but, given the unique power and downforce package required, the track won’t play to our strengths.
“Therefore, of course, we must be measured in our optimism, and we will need to wait for Singapore and beyond before we can see the fruits of our labours reflected on track.”
But the high power nature of Spa, and the following race at Monza, will test the upgrades made to the engine and Honda’s motorsport boss Yasuhisa Arai reckons they will be useful opportunities to gather meaningful data for further developments.
He said: “Honda has updated our combustion characteristics to further improve our power units for Spa and the second half of the season. This weekend’s free practices will be important to test the pairing of the power units to the cars.
“McLaren-Honda’s focus is to improve race by race. We know we can learn a lot from the circuit for immediate future, and hope that we can come out of the weekend with some positives.”
McLaren scored its best result of the season last time out in Hungary with Fernando Alonso coming home fifth and Jenson Button ninth. That good result was rooted in the slow-speed, high-downforce characteristics of that track and Button also admitted that expectations need to remain grounded for improvements results at Spa.
He said: “I’m really looking forward to getting back into the car and seeing where we stand among our nearest competitors. We can’t pretend that we’re expecting a huge jump forward in performance – especially at this circuit, as it doesn’t suit our car’s characteristics – but, after the break, I’m feeling refreshed, positive, and ready to continue the solid progress we’ve made so far.”
Honda has admitted that the Spa update will be the last big upgrade this season and McLaren will be hoping it has at least made a step in the right direction despite the move to downplay expectations and the discussion around its decision to give both Alonso and Button an eighth engine.