There were the predictable teething troubles - test driver Stoffel Vandoorne completed just three laps - but as McLaren racing director Eric Boullier points out, systems checks are the test’s primary aim and it is behind the scenes that the real progress is happening…
Q: Eric, a new engine partner always brings a mixture of hope and trepidation. Which of these prevails on a difficult first day of your opening 2014 test with Honda?
Eric Boullier: Huge hope. You have to go through the frustration of the first fitting processes - you have to go back to the basics - and that is a normal process which you have to manage very carefully, because everything that you do properly now is ticked and done and will not haunt you in the future.
Q: You are running a development car for this test, so it must be basically all about system checks for the power unit. What information do you want to take home?
EB: There are three very important matters that we want to sort out in these two days. The very basic one: checking the operational constraints between two companies that have not been working together for 20 years. That sounds stupid, but in the end is very important. If you want to run operations properly and smoothly you need to check and double check that people understand what their counterpart is doing - how everything works. We have a huge IT programme: we are connecting McLaren with the Honda Milton Keynes base and also with Japan and the track. This is a big data-sharing operation that needs to be proven. That is sure a challenge. And the most important part: the engine itself. We need to check if all the systems have been designed properly, checked and that they are working on the car. Simply said, system checks.
Q: You ran the car at a filming day last week. Are you disappointed that it has not managed much running today? Only the last two hours of today’s session…
EB: No, that’s normal. You have to be very careful. For the filming we were very cautious not to overdo it, so we were very much taking it on the easy side. Here we already have some specs of the 2015 car and you have to very careful, especially in terms of the electrical parts. You can damage a whole car just in the blink of an eye, so we prefer to take our time to make sure that there is no damage. Just envision this: if you produce a short [circuit] there can be immense damage not only on the physical car, but on peripheral areas as well. And we want to avoid that, because then you don’t run at all.
Q: Having Honda back in Formula One racing is fantastic news - and McLaren had a very successful partnership with them in the past. Does that former success together help? As a basis of fundamental trust…
EB: Definitely. In some ways the recent experience of Honda in F1 may help because they are eager to succeed. And McLaren as well - after two difficult years - is eager to succeed. There is a very strong will to do well and to win. Both companies clicked very easily on that desire to succeed, so we have a very nice cooperation in place.
Q: With such complicated power units these days, is it important to be a works team?
EB: …it is mandatory. To win a championship you will have to be a works team. This is such complex machinery now - and there is so much more to come in the next few years. There will be a point where everybody will basically match the current situation, but for the following years there is so much to be developed. Take for example the battery: the battery is evolving every year, so only an engine manufacturer will be able to invest for this technology - also understand this technology - and package it for F1.
Q: How will the day-to-day business be run? McLaren are based in Woking, Honda has its UK base in Milton Keynes. Will there be Honda people in Woking?
EB: Yes, we have Honda people in Woking, we have people based in Japan - and Milton Keynes is not that far from Woking, so there will be an intense interchange of people.
Q: You have one more day on track tomorrow and then a break of two and a half months before the first Jerez test of 2015. Can you tell us what will - or has to - happen during that break?
EB: The schedule is to process and analyse data from these two days in Abu Dhabi. There will be a lot of data - operational data and systems data - to share between the companies and the different engineering groups to make sure that once we are in Jerez all possible glitches are fixed.
Q: How many changes are still to be made to the engine before Jerez?
EB: A lot on the software, a lot on codes, but not a lot on the layout or architecture of the engine, as this was finalized quite some time ago.
Q: It is perhaps surprising that in this very important moment for McLaren you are putting the team’s least experienced driver in the car. Can you explain the reasons for this?
EB: Just because this is a systems check test, which has nothing to do with the performance of the car. It is just gathering as much data as we can, so the experience of the driver doesn’t count much.
Q: Does having Stoffel Vandoorne in the cockpit here have any consequences for your 2015 driver line-up?
EB: He is one of our young drivers. He actually did very well in the second part of the GP2 season, so I think it is a reward for him to be here and be part of this new historical partnership with Honda. As I said before, his skills are good enough - his experience is good enough - for the feedback that we need at this test. So don’t read anything into this test.
Q: And finally a word on the just-completed 2014 season: in the end you finished fifth, though it could quite easily have been sixth. That cannot be the goal for 2015…
EB: I am not sure that we can set a target now - it’s far too early. Let’s wait until after the winter testing. We have to create the right mindset for the people to make sure that we can fight for podiums as early as possible. I don’t want to say a number - just that we need to finish as high as possible. We are just at the beginning of our journey.
Q: It has taken other engine manufacturers quite some time to get up to speed with the new power units - and even now the majority are not where they would like to be. How is the situation at Honda?
EB: These are things that I cannot answer right now. But from the development as I oversee it, I can say that we have been quite brave. Just from the numbers that I know, there is a huge potential. The commitment of Honda is absolutely huge and we have a very good preparation strategy, so we are on a good path.
Q: So we will see the new McLaren-Honda partnership equal your past successes?
EB: I am sure you will.