This morning, many Formula One fans were shocked when they heard that Honda are withdrawing from the sport as of the end of the 2021 season. The rather sudden announcement has left many wondering what the future holds for Alpha Tauri and Red Bull, who are currently the only teams that are running with the Honda engine.
This article is going to take a look at what Honda have achieved in Formula One, why they are leaving, and how this is going to impact the teams as we approach the 2022 regulation changes.
The History of Honda
Honda have had their ups and downs in Formula One, but the recent news of Honda’s exit has now increased the tally of exits to four – which makes me wonder how many more times this is going to happen. Honda started their Formula One journey in 1964, only a handful of years after they started producing road cars, and they were known as ‘Honda R & D Company’.
The team would go on to win just two races in their four-year campaign in Formula One, but were greeted with awful reliability issues that saw them retire from fourteen of the races they competed in during this four-year period. The Honda R & D Company would withdraw from the sport for the first time in 1968 after French driver Jo Schlesser would tragically lose his life at his home grand prix after crashing off circuit and burning in his car. Honda left Formula One and decided to focus on selling road cars in the west.
The Honda name wouldn’t return to Formula One until 1983, where they returned to F1 as an engine manufacturer. Over the 9 years they spent in the sport, they would supply engines Spirit, Williams, Lotus, McLaren and Tyrell, and becoming one of the most sought-after engine suppliers on the grid. They would win six consecutive constructors championships, and made one of the most iconic racing cars in history when partnered with McLaren. The team would withdraw from the sport for the second time in 1992 due to a change in the Japanese economy, but left with huge smiles on their faces after dominating for two-thirds of the time they spent racing during their return.
The Honda still working behind the scenes for the rest of the 1990s, working as an engine supplier alongside their partner, Mugen Motorsports, who supplied engines five teams – although Mugen didn’t have anywhere near as much success, only winning 4 races in seven years. Honda had considered making a return to the sport with their own car, and had even gone as far as hiring all of the required people for the team, and having Jos Verstappen test the car in 1999. However, when technical director and designer, Harvey Postlethwaite, had a fatal heart attack in Spain while the car was being tested, Honda cancelled the project.
It wouldn’t take long for the Tokyo-based company to return though, as Honda would supply BAR with engines between 2000 and 2005, as well as Jordan in 2001 and 2002. Honda purchased 45% of the BAR team in November 2004, before purchasing the remaining 55% in September 2005 to create the Honda F1 Team. BAR had been successful, finishing 2nd in the constructors standings in 2004. The 2006 season was the first season that saw Honda Racing as their own manufacturer in over 30 years; and while the team did suffer with reliability issues, they finished the year with a victory (Jenson Button’s first Formula One win) and several podiums.
The 2007 and 2008 seasons were where things started to fall apart for Honda, who seemed to lose a lot of pace and struggle to qualify in the top 10. There were occasional races that saw a podium, but these races tend to be those that were full of chaos, such as the 2008 British Grand Prix. Honda would announce their third departure at the end of the 2008 season due to the global economic crisis, and sell the team to Ross Brawn for £1 – we all know how that story ended!
Honda made their return to Formula One in 2015, supplying McLaren with engines and trying to recreate the success they had in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The partnership didn’t go well at all, with McLaren becoming one of the worst teams on the grid when it came to engine power and straight-line speed. McLaren would end their partnership with Honda in 2017 and move over to Renault power in 2018; but Red Bull rolled the dice and opted to power their sister company – Toro Rosso – with a Honda engine for the 2018 season. The power unit had improved massively over the winter-break in terms of performance but still struggled with the reliability that Fernando Alonso had been complaining about at McLaren. However, Red Bull were impressed with the improvements that Honda made throughout 2018 and switched their engine suppliers for 2019.
2019 was a very good year for Honda, with Toro Rosso finishing on the podium twice, and Red Bull winning on three occasions. The Honda team were back on the top step of the Podium for the first time since 2006, and the future looked promising. Honda continued their impressive form, with Red Bull winning the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix and Alpha Tauri winning at Monza (for the first time since 2008)! This made this morning’s announcement a lot more shocking for me…
Why is Honda’s F1 Exit Important?
Honda’s reasoning behind their withdrawal from the Formula One World Championship is due to the evolution of internal combustion engines. Honda plan on allocating their resources into Fuel-Cell Vehicles (FCV) and Battery EV (BEV) technology in order to guide them to their goal of being carbon-neutral by 2050. This is understandable, as Honda are one of the biggest car makers in the world, and developing technology to tackle environmental issues before their competitors is important from a business point-of-view.
Although, the departure of Honda from F1 has resulted in Red Bull and Alpha Tauri being out of a contract with an engine supplier for 2022 – and their options? It’s safe to say they are incredibly limited.
The odds of Red Bull receiving a contract with Mercedes is really unlikely for two reasons – the first being that the two teams are rivals, and I can’t imagine Mercedes are too keen to give Red Bull their engines (which are the fastest on the grid), especially when there are championships on the line. Suppose Mercedes were to give Red Bull a contract with their engines; this brings me to my second point, which is that Red Bull would be forced to use the previous-year’s engine that is less powerful than Mercedes’ most recent specification. This isn’t ideal for the British-based team, as they would be attempting to compete for a championship with an engine that is one-year out of date. I can’t imagine Red Bull and Mercedes collaborating on an engine anytime soon, which brings us onto Ferrari.
Ferrari are currently going through an incredibly tough time with their 2020 F1 package, with their car struggling with handling and straight line speeds. Ferrari mentioned earlier this year that we might not see their performance reach championship-winning levels until the regulation changes until 2022 – which would obviously make Red Bull a little skeptical. Regardless of the competitiveness; I think Ferrari would be very similar to Mercedes with the fact that they wouldn’t want to give a championship-contending team one of their engines in the first place.
This leaves Red Bull with one more option – Renault. I believe this is the most likely option, despite the burnt bridges between the two teams. Red Bull previously ran with Renault engines while Toro Rosso were testing the Honda engine in 2018, but the relationship between the team and engine supplier spiralled out of control and ended with a messy divorce. Will Renault be willing to supply Red Bull with their engines for the new regulations, or will Red Bull be forced to look elsewhere?
As you can see, Honda have had a strange run in Formula One, departing from the sport a total of four times now, with success and failures adding up along the way. Seeing a manufacturer leave Formula One is always a shame, as it means there is more of the same in the sport, thus reducing innovation. Regarding Red Bull’s situation, the outcome is not going to end in the intended way for them as it means the first year of the new regulations will be a ‘test’ year for them, as they aren’t familiar with the new engines. Whatever happens, the 2022 season is going to be an interesting one for Red Bull and Alpha Tauri…