Honda race engineers are optimistic of achieving a far better result at Suzuka than they did in the 2015 Japanese Grand Prix. File photo: Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters

Suzuka, Japan - Honda, engine supplier to former world champion McLaren, is expecting a happier homecoming than last year in Sunday's Japanese Grand Prix.

The 2015 race at the Honda-owned Suzuka circuit was arguably the low point of a bruising season for Honda, marred by unreliability and a lack of performance from its engines.

With Honda management watching, Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button were easy pickings for rivals - prompting the Spaniard to criticise the engine in a radio transmission broadcast live across the world.

Honda's Formula One head Yusuke Hasegawa, who replaced Yasuhisa Arai in the role early this year, said: “I was not in the team at the time so I didn't know the actual situation. From the outside point of view, of course, it was a very tough moment.

“But it was a moment we had to experience, I think. Because of Fernando's comment and also the very tough result, we tried harder in the past year.”

Honda returned to Formula One in 2015, having last fielded a works outfit in 2008, but their renewed partnership with McLaren has struggled to get up to speed.

McLaren finished ninth in the Constructors’ standings in 2015, above only backmarker Manor.

The team scored points in only five of the 19 races, and suffered 12 retirements, including four occasions when neither car finished.

Steady progress

But Honda has worked to iron out the problems and McLaren, which last won a race in 2012, has made steady progress up the field this season.

It is currently sixth and, with Honda providing a stream of engine updates, consistent points finishers even if that still falls far short of the expectations of the sport's second most successful team.

The improvement gives Honda hope and genuine optimism within the outfit of putting on a strong showing in front of the enthusiastic Japanese fans.

“I think so,” said Hasegawa, when asked if there was a stark contrast in mood within the Honda ranks compared to 2015.

“Because of our steady results, although it is not fantastic, but we can expect some level of the results in Suzuka. For this year it is very important for us to show we can prove some of our progress.”

Dark horses

Hasegawa, who has previous experience in Formula One from Honda's time with BAR and Jordan in the 1990s and 2000s, has played his part in helping steady the ship.

Alonso, Button and Stoffel Vandoorne - who scored the team's first point this year standing in for the injured Spaniard in Bahrain - have raced to 13 points finishes. Three races have seen both cars in the top 10.

The team had exceeded its 2015 total haul by as early as Austria, the ninth race, leading to a growing belief that McLaren could be 'dark horses' in 2017 when engine development is freed up.

Work on next year's power unit is already well underway and Hasegawa is optimistic that McLaren, which last finished in the top three in the 2014 season-opener in Australia when still using Mercedes engines, can return to the podium in 2017.

“It is not a commitment, but we would like to get some podiums,” he said. “I think the target we have set is at a good level. But the question is can we achieve that level of performance or not.”

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