The only surprising aspect to Honda’s announcement that it would “conclude” its Formula 1 engagement at the end of 2021 – when its partnership with Red Bull’s two F1 teams expires – is that it took certain quarters within the sport by surprise. Dig deeper, and Honda’s exit is very much in keeping with its recent F1 modus operandi which, with few exceptions, has been ill-advised at best and horribly haphazard at worst.
Forget romantic notions that “We love racing”, as the company proclaimed in 2000 when it returned for the umpteenth time as an engine supplier to BAR. The record suggests it is more a case of ‘We love you; We love you not’. Since its first entry in 1964 Honda has arguably been the sport’s most prolific exit-er.
A case could also be made that Honda has similar form in entering and exiting market segments. Consider the roaring success that was the NSX, yet how long enthusiasts waited for its lacklustre replacement; ditto the CRX, S2000 and Prelude – all sparkling products destined to either disappear without follow-ons or be replaced by underwhelming successors.
Saliently, that does not hold true for Honda’s two-wheel offerings. Company founder Sochiro Honda loved racing – whether on two wheels or four, although he was seemingly more partial to the former. He died in August 1991, tellingly the year the Big H scored the last of its 11 F1 world titles (five drivers and six constructors), initially with Williams and then most famously with the formidable McLarens.
Including the latest announcement, since the founder’s death Honda has exited F1 thrice as engine supplier (excluding the Mugen projects overseen by the founder’s son, Hirotoshi) and twice as team owner. A dalliance with Dallara-built chassis which set sparkling times was “indefinitely aborted” in the late nineties, and its own (ex-BAR) team shut at the end of 2008. As is well-remembered the latter was handed to management and won both 2009 titles as Brawn, powered by Mercedes.
Honda returned in 2015 as hybrid power partner to McLaren, with the project bearing all the hallmarks of previous campaigns. Despite engine regulations having been drafted in 2009 and firmed up in 2012, Honda arrived a year late – ostensibly needing time to prepare for the challenge – then lamented that it was difficult to catch up. The deal was slated to take the parties to 2020, which at the time was the end of the prevailing regulatory period.
By electing to return as engine supplier Honda had chosen the worst of all worlds: Funding its partner teams via engines and financial contributions, yet not benefitting from F1’s revenues; not being directly represented on FIA working groups, thus having little political power; having little or no input on driver choice; and suffering the eternal dilemma of being first to get blame and last to receive credit.
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During the 2015 Japanese Grand Prix, held at Honda-owned Suzuka, Fernando Alonso said on the radio his motor “feels like a GP2 [engine]… very embarrassing”. Thereafter the partnership spiralled downwards before being terminated by mutual agreement at the end of 2017. McLaren signed with Renault, while Toro Rosso (now AlphaTauri) went the other way, taking up a supply of Honda, followed a year later by Red Bull Racing.
Within six months Max Verstappen scored a conveniently-timed ‘home’ win at the Red Bull Ring in front of Honda suits who had flown in to discuss their F1 programme, which was due to expire 18 months’ time. Did the win sway them? Only enough to extend the contract by a year. This was a puzzling decision given that F1 at the time planned an extensive overhaul of its technical regulations for 2021. Thus, there would be an overlap.
Significantly, there was no fanfare from either party, just a single two-line Tweet from the team announcing, “We’ll be powered by Honda in 2021! The team are delighted to confirm that we have extended our partnership to use Honda hybrid power.”
Don’t be surprised: during an address at the Tokyo Motor Show two months earlier, Honda president and CEO Takahiro Hachigo spoke glowingly of electrification, the “joy of mobility” and “people’s life potential” under the theme ‘Honda e:Technology’, then introduced a buzz term – e:HEV. Throughout his speech the man who held the future of Honda’s F1 programme in his gift referred to ‘sport’ only as part of ‘transport’.
Covid-19 subsequently delayed F1’s ‘new era’ switch by a year – Honda was not to know that at the time – making end-2021 a more convenient exit point overall. Last month Pierre Gasly scored a popular win in Monza for AlphaTauri – making Honda the only brand to win with two teams under the hybrid formula. Yet Honda’s delight, if any, was kept well in check.
Did the surprise win complicate the exit announcement? Whatever the eventual news of their departure shouldn’t have prompted claims “F1 and Red Bull had been stunned” – as one broadsheet dramatically announced the development – when Hachigo confirmed the “conclusion” to the programme.
He put forward reasons such as “realisation of carbon neutrality by 2050” and “electrifying two-thirds of our global automobile unit sales in 2030” as reasons for the exit, adding that Honda was focussing on the “creation of advanced power unit and energy technologies and the realisation of carbon neutrality in the future.
Honda’s future objective was, he said, to provide “joy and freedom of mobility” and creation of “a sustainable society where people can enjoy life.” All well and good as corporate messaging, but the implication is that F1 is dirty and unsustainable and does not provide joyful mobility.
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Yet, the day after Hachigo’s announcement, Honda reconfirmed its commitment to IndyCar. Ted Klaus, president of Honda Performance Development, said: “Honda welcomes this step to the future by IndyCar, action that mirrors Honda’s efforts to develop and manufacture high-performance, electrified products that will meet industry challenges and delight our customers.”
The “step” referred to by Klaus is the (delayed) addition of hybrid components to IndyCar’s current 2400cc, twin-turbocharged V6 engines, thus boosting power to 900bhp in 2023. F1 currently exceeds such levels from a 1,600cc unit, achieved via a 160bhp hybrid element. Pray tell, Mr Hachigo, how IndyCar’s (delayed) power unit assists Honda in achieving its objectives while F1’s technology does not?
It is clear that reasons other than those tabled by Hachigo lurk behind the exit. What these truly are only the board knows and are unlikely to reveal. But the most likely is that Honda simply cannot afford F1, particularly when last year’s (pre-Covid) financials are examined: Car sales down 10% and profits down double that. Add in the realisation that Honda is unlikely to win the titles next year, and the decision was easy.
One year ago F1 announced plans to become carbon neutral by 2030 – Honda plans to do the same by 2050 – with initiatives including the introduction of synthetic and/or biofuels aimed at developing clean-burn fuels for use in the billion internal combustion engine-powered cars currently running on the world’s roads. These make up 90% of the global vehicle parc.
“Formula 1 set out a detailed plan in 2019 to ensure the sport is net zero carbon by 2030,” said an F1 spokesperson in the wake of Honda’s exit announcement. “That includes all aspects of the sport, both on and off the track including more sustainable engine technologies and fuels.
“Formula 1 has always been at the forefront of automotive innovation that has been hugely beneficial to the wider automotive sector. We believe as a global sport we must take the lead on important issues like sustainability and will be working with all the teams and our partners to deliver on the 2030 goal.”
However, F1 needs to sort its future engine regulations post haste: as things currently stand the runway is too short to entice suppliers under the current engine regulations, yet the framework and timing of incoming regulations is up in the air. The current set of regulations took five years from inception to implementation, so F1 has no time to squander. That said, incoming F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali has high level contacts within the VW Group.
Thus from 2022 F1 will have three engine suppliers servicing the grid: Mercedes supplying itself, Aston Martin (as Racing Point will become), McLaren (from 2021), and Williams; Ferrari three, namely itself, Sauber and Haas, and Renault supplying itself. Where will Red Bull’s two teams turn for their power?
Logically that task falls upon Renault, known to be seeking partners, but logic and F1 have long been unhappy bedfellows. First off, back in 2018 Red Bull and Renault split acrimoniously despite a run of four double titles, so an uneasy relationship prevails, while Ferrari is unlikely to jump at supplying Red Bull, which historically outperformed the Scuderia on the chassis front.
If no deal is reached, Appendix 9 of F1’s sporting regulations, which permits the FIA to enforce engine supply contracts via a pre-determined formula, kicks in. Thus F1 has a backstop.
But Ferrari could make a mischievous political move and offer to supply AlphaTauri only, leaving Red Bull to rekindle its relationship with Renault. Such a ploy would force the ‘other’ Italian team to operate a different back end to Red Bull. That would end the parts sharing arrangement which is currently possible between Red Bull’s ‘A’ and ‘B’ teams, which Ferrari has kicked so hard against.
AlphaTauri could decline the offer but would then need to explain to the FIA why it needs assistance under Appendix 9 when an alternate supply offer exists. The most likely option, though, is that Renault supplies both the Red Bull teams, but imposes stringent muzzling clauses on their pair to protect itself from the kind of stinging public criticism it endured previously.
Alternatively, Honda could license its engine technology to Red Bull in return for a sweetener, such as ongoing sponsorship of the Moto GP team – with Red Bull sub-contracting a specialist such as Cosworth or AVL (situated in Austria, Red Bull’s homeland) to develop and deliver the power units. As it is, Honda plans a new engine for 2021; thereafter engine development will be restricted for the next five years.
Failing either of these solutions, F1 could commission a “white label” engine, to be supplied to teams in times of need. Honda would possibly be prepared to sell its project on that basis, with a specialist company tending to technicalities, or a turn-key engine could be commissioned.
This would pose some challenging questions, however. Is F1 in the entertainment or technology business? Should the commercial rights holder act as engine supplier, with all the competitive implications, or facilitate an environment that is conducive to attracting engine suppliers? Not to mention the egg on Honda’s corporate face should such an engine go on to win titles, as its chassis did in 2009.
F1 will find a solution to Honda’s exit, although the ramifications are manifold, and not only with regard to engine supply. For starters, political power has shifted away from teams to those with engine operations: Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault. They will be able to increasingly leverage their power as F1 will be keen to avoid ending up with only two engine suppliers.
Consider that Ferrari has been in F1 since 1950 and supplied customer engines from 1997; Renault has been present as engine supplier in some form almost continuously since 1977, and Mercedes acquired shares in its Brixworth facility in 1994, converting to full ownership in 2001. Such loyalty to the sport is priceless, and for that the trio deserves recognition.
F1 is better off without Honda, whose capricious dipping in and out of the sport has done its brand and the championship no favours. The brutal truth is that 30 years ago Honda knew exactly why it was in F1 and what it sought from the sport, but that clearly no longer holds true. If anything, executives are unable to provide coherent answers as to why Honda returned in 2015. Maybe it seemed a good idea at the time?
Honda’s exit should therefore be welcomed rather than dreaded. It is, though, a pity Mr Hachigo saw fit to slam the door on the way out. By all accounts Mr Honda would have closed it silently, knowing he would be back.