After miserable transition year, McLaren has renewed hope
PARIS (AP) McLaren struggled so badly last year that the relative success of preseason testing almost felt like stepping on the podium for success-starved drivers Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button.
Although a genuine podium finish is a long shot at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix next weekend, there is a renewed enthusiasm that it is a realistic goal sometime in 2016.
''We must be every race in the points, and then fighting for podiums in the second part of the season,'' Alonso said.
With two former world champions on board, McLaren had high hopes for 2015. But the transition back to Honda engines proved much more problematic than anticipated and two drivers with 47 GP wins between them mustered only 27 points as Button finished a lowly 16th and Alonso 17th. It was a humiliating year punctuated by caustic outbursts from Alonso, who had to retire from seven of 19 races.
The Spaniard finally lost all patience and called the car's lack of speed ''embarrassing'' at the Japanese Grand Prix in September, comparing the car's power unit to ''a GP2 engine'' in a publicly chastening blow to Honda.
Alonso, the two-time F1 champion, left Ferrari to join McLaren, reckoning it was the only team that could surpass Mercedes in the medium term. His frustration at McLaren was heightened by seeing his Ferrari replacement Sebastian Vettel win three races.
Fast forward a few months and, after a winter spent in the garage working on those demoralizing engine issues, his attitude has changed for the better.
So much so that Alonso gave an interview to Spanish radio last month saying he felt he could win the world title again, although he is not the type to get ahead of himself and it is not certain he meant with McLaren.
''I have a contract until the end of 2017, so that's the minimum I will be (at McLaren),'' said Alonso, who turns 35 in July. ''Then in 2017 the regulations will change a lot, the cars will be very different - supposed to be five seconds faster. So I will drive in 2017, see how much I enjoy driving those cars, and I will make a decision to stay more years or to stop in F1.''
Although ambiguous, the essence of Alonso's message to McLaren was clear: the car needs to be competing for the title in 2017.
This year offers Alonso an indication of how likely that will be, and the preseason testing in the Spanish sunshine was encouraging.
Over the eight days at the Catalunya track near Barcelona, McLaren did more than double the test laps it achieved in 12 days of testing last year, underlining the engine's enhanced reliability.
''The progress is massive in that area. That's something we knew we had to work on,'' said the 36-year-old Button, who completed only 13 races in 2015. ''We've had no reliability issues with it at all and it's a big difference. At some circuits last year, in the race we were losing six tenths every lap.''
McLaren also has a little more speed in reserve considering that it did not run its full-spec car in testing.
Given the undoubted skill of Alonso - considered by many observers still to be the best driver in terms of pure racing ability - it won't be lack of talent that holds back McLaren's progress.
But just as Alonso was more outspoken than the diplomatic Button last year, the Spaniard is showing more circumspection than his British teammate heading toward the new season.
''I am in a bit of a stand-by situation: sometimes some of the top times seem to be reachable, while on other days they seem to be unreachable,'' said Alonso, who won the last of his 32 races in May, 2013.
''What our level of performance is will become visible in Australia. So I am waiting for the Melbourne race: four o'clock, same tires, same fuel load - and then let's see where everybody stands.''