By Alan Baldwin
BARCELONA (Reuters) - Fernando Alonso made a breakthrough for McLaren at his home Spanish Grand Prix on Saturday by joining the top 10 in qualifying for the first time since Honda returned as engine partners last year.
While recognizing it was a far cry from the days when the former world champions would have been dismayed not to be in the final phase, the Spaniard said being 10th quickest marked an important step on the road back to the top.
"It's the first qualifying in a long time that I don't watch on television," quipped the double world champion who for more than a year has finished before the final fight for pole position. "It's nice to be a part of the show."
Honda were McLaren's engine partners when they were dominant at the end of the 1980s and returned to the British team in the second year of the new V6 turbo hybrid era with Mercedes already dominant.
Their engine was embarrassingly far off the pace, with both Alonso and British team mate Jenson Button collecting record grid penalties last season, but the Japanese manufacturer is starting to close the gap.
McLaren, eight times constructors' champions, have not won a race since 2012 but Alonso finished sixth in Russia this month with Button 10th.
"It's nothing really compared to our goals which are being world champions," said Alonso. "So it's just a mini-target which we need to go through.
"We'll be in Q3 (the final phase), then regularly in the points and then close to podium positions. It's something you need to go through.
"We are going in the right direction, we keep improving. Sometimes we can see it and sometimes you can touch it with results like this one. But still a long way to go, quite far from pole position."
Alonso said bigger things were coming and hoped the evidence would be seen soon.
McLaren Racing Director Eric Boullier agreed with that assessment.
"We are on the move, which is very positive," he said. "We can see progress every weekend...I think we can expect to keep improving at least for some time."
McLaren scored 27 points last season. They have 10 after four of this season's 21 races.
(Editing by Tony Jimenez)