(Photo credit: slitzf1)
As well as an unusually cold wind, there was also a little tension in the air as Toro Rosso driver Brendon Hartley guided his STR13 out onto the Circuit de Catalunya for the first day of F1 testing on Monday 26 February.
Having struggled to resolve ongoing performance and technical issues during their three-year hook-up with McLaren, Honda hope that the switch to Toro Rosso will spark a new dawn. The Japanese manufacturer has entered a three-year partnership with the Italians but know it will take more than just a change of livery to revive their fortunes.
Before they can even think about points, podiums and quickest laps, they need to deliver an engine capable of going the full race distance regularly. The first step towards this goal was a mid-winter management reshuffle which saw Yusuke Hasegawa drop the F1 reins, with Toyoharu Tanabe and Yasuaski Asaki stepping in to cover his role dually.
The next step was to assess why their power unit suffered so many failures last year. The research and development team were instructed to focus on reliability ahead of performance, suggesting a full back-to-basics approach. With each engine needing to last seven races to avoid penalties this term, it is expected that the first performance upgrades will not be seen until at least race eight in France - providing there are no dramas between now and then.
Some new engine tweaks have required body adjustments from Toro Rosso but in areas where the designers were unwilling to bend, the engine developers have also had to make compromises, suggesting a more collaborative approach this time round. The quest to find harmony between engine and body has eluded the Honda engineers in recent times, but there have been positive noises coming from within the camp, hinting that things might be different this time round. Team boss Franz Tost told Sky Sports: "We are happy with the Honda engine which is doing a fantastic job."
We have heard similar claims from the supplier’s workshop over the last three seasons so any talk of a revival would be way premature. The team have suggested that their goal is to turn Toro Rosso into a top-three team. However, at this stage, even a top-five finish would be a massive achievement in 2018.
A positive start
This time last year, McLaren-Honda were plagued by engine issues from the first lap of testing, and it was clear from then on that it would be another difficult year. In fact, it wasn’t until the end of the 2017 season they finally showed signs of improvement. This year, in-house testing at Milton Keynes has been relatively incident-free compared to 12 months ago, but that didn’t prevent the anxiety levels rising as Hartley took to the track in Barcelona on Monday.
When the New Zealander finally came in after clocking up 72 successful laps, there was an audible sigh of relief all round. And when he later suggested that the car was driving better than the Renault-powered units from 2017, there was a palpable feeling that the winter’s toil had been vindicated.
By the end of day two, with more successful laps under their belt, the relief had turned to positivity. Not only did the car look great, but it was running like a dream. Even the afternoon snow fall could not dampen the spirits within the pit garage.
Overall, the Toro Rosso completed more laps than any other team in Test One marking their most reliable pre-season since their return to F1 in 2015. Now, Honda’s engineers hope that their next set of instructions will be to focus on boosting performance rather than just building an engine that is fit for purpose.
How well will Honda and Toro Rosso perform in 2018? Let us know in the comments below.