Formula 1

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Honda coy as McLaren perhaps set to shock in 2016

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If you wanted to sum up how bad McLaren's first year back with Honda power was in 2015 then the points scored vs. number of grid places dropped through penalties is the best place to go.

It was, at times, comical to see the team who hasn't won a race now since 2012 earning combined grid penalties five times the total of cars actually on the grid.

Then there were the embarrassing issues with fuel consumption, and a lack of turbo ERS and turbo power leaving McLaren's star line-up of Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button sitting ducks down the straights.

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Indeed, at Suzuka, the two-time champion Alonso compared the Honda engine to those used in GP2 such was its lack of power and the poor reliability then produced the comical moments during qualifying at Interlagos with the Spaniard sat in a chair trackside enjoying the sun as the others cars battled for pole position.

Big gains made over the Winter

Now though with testing for the 2016 season a month away, there are reports the Japanese carmaker has made major breakthroughs with its power unit over the Winter break.

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Spanish publication AS, as quoted by Sky Sports, claiming a relocating of the cooling system for the Energy Recovery System (ERS) and development of the turbo could see the 2016-spec Honda unit produce over 200 horsepower more than last year - a gain that would surpass the deficit it was thought the McLaren's were suffering with in 2015.

But Honda themselves were quick to deny those claims describing them as "unsubstantiated and merely speculative" to the British broadcaster.

McLaren set to shock?

Despite their move to dampen expectations, its hard to not consider just where the McLaren team will be fighting on the grid this year. Can the MP4-31 battle for 'best of the rest' behind the expected frontrunners of Mercedes and Ferrari or will they still be languishing in the midfield struggling to make it out of Q1 on a Saturday?

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One key advantage the Woking-based team holds is that it effectively remains the works team for the Honda project in F1. This means it is guaranteed to have the absolute best power unit Honda believes it can provide and can design its car around the specific requirements of that engine.

Compare that to the customer teams of Ferrari and Mercedes who don't have the optimum compatibility between chassis and power unit and over the course of a season may not get immediate access to the upgrades made by their engine suppliers.

The Red Bull/ Renault turmoil will also benefit the McLaren team as we can expect a very difficult few races for both teams as they examine just where the Ilmor Engineering team have looked to improve its fledgling power unit and Renault must readjust to becoming a works team and dedicate time on developing the car as much as the engine.

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A big year ahead

In reality, it's quite possible McLaren could be the fourth best team on the grid in terms of speed, but the reliability is what will ultimately decide just how successful they will be this year.

If it can run well then perhaps we could consider them a future threat to Mercedes and Ferrari from 2017. If it's another year of setbacks then questions may be asked as to how long their close relationship will last.

Honda have the money and the resources to make the kind of colossal step Ferrari made last year and if McLaren can provide the chassis to match, they will undoubtedly be the shock of this year - much to the delight and possibly even relief of many.

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