By Abhishek Takle
SUZUKA, Japan (Reuters) - Honda, engine suppliers to former world champions McLaren, are expecting a happier homecoming than last year in Sunday's Japanese Formula One Grand Prix.
Last year's race at the Honda-owned Suzuka circuit was arguably the low point of a bruising season for the Japanese manufacturer, marred by unreliability and a lack of performance from their engines.
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With Honda management watching, Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button were easy pickings for rivals -- prompting the Spaniard to criticize the engine in a radio transmission broadcast live across the world.
"I was not in the team in the Suzuka situation so I didn't know the actual situation," Honda's Formula One head Yusuke Hasegawa, who replaced Yasuhisa Arai in the role early this year, told Reuters.
"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 last 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 last year, above only backmarkers Manor.
They scored points in only five of the 19 races, and suffered 12 retirements, including four occasions when neither car failed to cross the line.
But Honda has worked to iron out the problems and McLaren, who last won a race in 2012, have made steady progress up the field this season.
They are 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 last year.
"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."
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' next season when engine development is freed up.
Work on next year's power unit is already well underway.
Hasegawa is optimistic that McLaren, who last finished in the top-three in the 2014 season-opener in Australia when still using Mercedes engines, can return to the podium next year.
"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."
(Editing by Alan Baldwin)