The only engine to power more than 1 team to victory in the turbo hybrid era.
Claimed 3 victories at the hands of Max Verstappen in their inaugural year with Red Bull proper in Austria, Germany, and Brazil.
2 more wins at Silverstone and Monza from Verstappen and Gasly
Since supplying power to the Red Bull portfolio starting in 2018 with the then Toro Rosso sister squad, in all they have earned:
- 5 wins
- 2 Poles
- 20 Podiums
In the 2020 season, Verstappen is the only driver on the grid with a perfect podium finish rate. They’ve cemented themselves as the second best constructor and substantially increased production across both teams. And yet, Honda has announced their plans to exit the sport after the 2021 season.
So why leave seemingly out of nowhere?
That’s the million dollar question.
To summarize, the majority of the language is focused on their commitment to being carbon neutral by 2050.
Takahiro Hachigo, President of Honda Motor Co.
What’s interesting about this is they also referenced their commitment to racing as well as how ingrained racing is to the DNA of Honda. I’ve compiled a broad list of Honda’s involvement in other racing series directly from their website.
While some of these series do have plans to move toward electrification, not all of them share the same voracious pursuit to carbon neutrality that Honda purportedly does.
- Formula F
- Quarter Midget
Mr. Hachigo goes on to say:
We want to aim carbon neutrality by 2050, so that’s what we want to put our resources into and I am not thinking about re-participating in Formula One. But racing is in Honda’s DNA, so for the other races Honda is participating in currently, we will continue in that with the passion we currently have for those races.
The point is Honda emphasizes this has nothing to do with any recent economic pressures but more so the natural trajectory of their long term sustainability goals and in line with their objectives. But their continued supply of power across other global motorsports raises questions about whether some of this choice had to do with the bearish global economic outlook hitting most consumer industries, in particular automotives.
But is their exit REALLY out of nowhere?
So while it’s undoubtedly true Honda are reallocating resources to meet their aggressive carbon neutral goals, it also wouldn’t be the first time that they have made an exit from the sport due to unforeseen circumstances.
As a global auto manufacturer, they have to be ready and willing to react to black swan events such as the one we find ourselves in now. In fact, Honda have made an exit from the sport on 3 other separate occasions prior to this one.
Let’s rewind to have a look at other times Honda has made a B-LINE for the exit.
2008 GLOBAL CRISIS EXIT
The most recent being their 2008 exit that will live in infamy as it gave way to the rise of the one-hit wonder Brawn GP. I’ve told this story before at length so I won’t go too deep in the woods here. Check the link in the description if you want to see that story.
This exit came on the heels of the financial crisis sprung up from deregulation in the financial industry, the spread of toxic assets, and policies around derivatives trading. The US Housing bubble was long overdue to be deflated but a perfect storm of events caused a tremendous burst. The global scale of the event was felt when the European debt crisis added to the mix.
LEHMAN BROTHERS FAILS
DOWN GOES ICELAND
But little did the world know, Honda had major plans to put their car on top and were opening their checkbooks to do so. They had spent $1.5 billion in Formula One in the past five years (source: Formula Money, fall of 2008).
All that was needed was a buyer of the team.
In comes Ross Brawn as the principal stakeholder in the final hour taking the reins of his eponymous team. The Brawn GP team shocked the grid earning double championship honors in the now iconic, most Cinderella-esque motorsport story of recent history.
It wasn’t the last time Honda reacted to stateside trouble and pulled out of the sport.
1968 Rise & Fall of Honda R&D
In 1968, Honda left the sport after just 4 short seasons making a grand entrance as a supplier of power to their own works team. Their first iteration was the RA271.
Honda was in rare air given that just two other constructors at the time were building not only their own engine but also their own chassis – Honda joined that short list with Ferrari and BRM. Despite the promise, a couple major catalysts have been cited for their exit:
(1) THE DEATH OF JO SCHLESSER
Honda had developed the RA302 for 1964 world champion John Surtees who refused to drive the car due to it’s trouble handling and overall instability during a Silverstone test. He also feared the magnesium skinned monocoque that was highly flammable in theory but Honda R&D pursued the innovative package accordingly to control for weight fluctuations. Having turned up to the French Grand Prix in the iteration Surtees thought to be too dangerous, he outright refused to race the car under any circumstance. Jo Schlesser answered the call; the perfect race for the French driver at his home race finally in a big budget car that hadn’t yet been proven – it had all the undertones of what could be an underdog success story. But unfortunately it would turn out to be Schlesser’s last drive as the RA302 had done everything Surtees feared it would: a. be uncontrollable and b. was highly flammable. Just a handful of laps into the race and the car flipped catching fire almost immediately. The blaze was so intense, there was nothing anyone could do even in the most ideal of rescue circumstances. Schlesser was killed instantly and in stunningly poor taste, thought it wise to recreate the magnesium monster with some alterations. But to no surprise, Surtees was not convinced by the previous showing and would not touch the car. After contemplation and consideration, the team decided not to return to race on the grid after that season taking a needed leave of absence.
(2) US AUTO SALES
But the black page they had penned that 1968 season, adding a 4th driver the paddock lost in the line of duty, was only part of the reason that drove them off the grid. For Honda to continue their expansion, they knew they had to make inroads in the US market where road car sales were a tremendous potential size of prize. It wasn’t long before their Formula 1 debut did they successfully mass produce their first road car – which is absolutely unheard of by today’s standards. Interestingly, it wasn’t until their third exit from the sport in 2008 that Honda would for the first time breach double digits in US market share for the first time (source: knoema.com).
While they continued to grow their operations and foothold on the global auto scene, their interest for the top single seater series returned; and with it, Honda success – but this time, of the different sort.
Let’s look at Honda’s 2nd soiree into Formula 1 where their engine program was the focus.
1983 – 1992 Engine Dominance
It has been 15 years since Honda had a play in F1 but the 1983 season was met with their re-emergence. The decision to focus on supplying engines to teams was a fruitful one to all parties. The Honda v6 Turbo was dominant powering a dynasty with 2 separate teams. Williams ran on Honda power from 1983 to 1987. They sputtered at first having been trusted by Frank Williams to run his race cars thanks to their proof of concept with Spirit the season before, but soon would be comfortable and by the latter half of 1985, it was obvious Williams were the team to beat. Over the 5 seasons, they’d secure 3 titles, 23 wins, 19 poles, and 47 podiums.
The partnership came to an end due to a dispute about placing Nakajima in the seat. Honda, Piquet, and Nakajima would take their talents to Lotus where a seat just opened up thanks to Ayrton Senna making a move for McLaren.
McLaren had been enjoying a solid run of their own thanks to the powerful TAG badged Porsche 1.5 V6turbo. The 1988 season was the start of one of the most dominant core packages the grid has ever seen with the all mighty MP4/4, Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna, the technical pair of Nichols and Murray, and of course the Honda RA168E v6 turbo.
The team of Senna and Prost was so electric, all they needed was two seasons together for each to get a world title. Prost would move to Ferrari while Mclaren powered Senna to 2 additional world championships consecutively in 90 and 91.
The end of the turbo era was the start of the exit for Honda but they stuck around a few more seasons given the Mclaren chassis was solid and Senna could take pretty much anything half decent around for a competitive lap. Of the 80 races they ran together over 5 years, they took 44 of 80 victories for a 55% win rate. That unprecedented 1988 season was especially brutal for the competition as the Honda powered mp4 would win all but one grand prix. They combined for 8 titles, 53 poles and 91 podiums in total.
On the eve of that legendary season in 1988, economic headwinds were brewing as The Japanese asset price bubble began to take form as early as 1987. Monetary policy in Japan became of critical importance as Black Monday in 1987 put pressure on the global economy and triggered the delay of credit tightening.
With the financial markets in ruins in Japan by the end of 1992, a full decade of economic stagnation was on the horizon often referred to as “The Lost Decade”. To cope with the situation, Honda was unable to continue their engine program directly and thus pulled out of the sport following Mansell’s usurping of Senna as world champion for Frank Williams.
Honda’s (RE)Turn of the Century
But Honda wasn’t done just yet. They acted in tandem with the independently operated, yet highly collaborative team of Mugen Motorsports from 1993 until the 1998 season – winning 4 grand prix in total.
Honda would officially return yet again in 2000 to power BAR and Jordan – dropping the latter after the 2002 season. Just ahead of the 2005 season, Honda bought 45% of the team from the parent company. Seeing the writing on the wall with regards to the restrictive laws around tobacco advertising, Honda bought the remaining 55% from the parent company ahead of the prohibition of tobacco money in ad space in late 2005. Lucky Strike would make it’s final appearance on the now Honda team’s car for the 2006 season.
Thus began Honda’s campaign as a full on team for the first time in nearly 40 years since the tragedy involving Jo Schessler in 1968. Which brings us neatly back to where we began with the 2008 season being the final in this stint for the team thanks to a late buyout of Ross Brawn and Nick Fry for the 2009 season.
Honda’s inactive period would be about the same as we saw in the 90s before they’d make their way back to the grid yet again in the hopes to resurrect their dominant form from the late 80s with McLaren. But this time around, the partnership wasn’t nearly as glorious. The Honda – Alonso fiefdom that was brewing became a major distraction but was more a product of the failed vision of the once powerful partnership between Honda and McLaren. Both pointed the finger at one another but ultimately, the sport lost out as McLaren dissolved the relationship in late 2017.
The silver lining was both McLaren and Honda learned a valuable lesson on the importance of synergies within the car had a clear vision on the type of partnership they were after. Both had happy endings as McLaren sit comfortably in 3rd place in the constructors championship in 2020 while Honda has propelled Red Bull’s package considerably forward from the issues experienced with Renault.
SO, WHAT NOW FOR RED BULL?
As you can hopefully now see, Honda’s exit REALLY isn’t that big of shock. Now you’ll see why I hinted at this back in January 2019. When you secure one of the promising drivers on the grid long term yet are unwilling to make a firm statement about your involvement beyond 2021, that’s a clear sign of what was to come.
Even with Honda on the hook for the 2021 Power Unit, the fact remains that Red Bull needs an engine supplier and fast. They have proven that their involvement in F1 is unwavering as they’ve inked their name to the Concorde Agreement that is set to last until 2025.
While Red Bull surely aren’t over the moon about the situation, they are eager to handle the issue without delay and support the decision from Honda. This was echoed in Christian Horner’s comments Friday:
Christian Horner, Team Principal Red Bull Racing F1
I’ve laid out 4 scenarios below of what their options are for a power supply for the 2022 season and beyond:
SCENARIO 1 AND MOST LIKELY: RENAULT
As much as we all may be looking forward to the drama of Renault having veto power, they technically won’t. Appendix 4 of the FIA sporting regulations under article b) protects against a team not securing power.
Appendix 4: SUPPLY OF POWER UNITS FOR THE 2021-2025 CHAMPIONSHIP SEASONS
In doing so, the FIA will first allocate the power unit supply between the Power Unit Manufacturers that are supplying the fewest number of teams, provided that the teams without a supply agreement shall be allocated to the Power Unit Manufacturer(s) that supplies(supply) the lowest number of teams and so on. If there is more than one Power Unit Manufacturer supplying the fewest number of teams (i.e. in the same position) and/or more than one team requesting a supply the allocation between such Power Unit Manufacturers shall occur by ballot (which ballot shall be transparent and undertaken by the FIA in the presence of a representative of each of the Power Unit Manufacturer(s) and the new Customer Team concerned).
Cyril Abiteboul, Renault team boss would go on to say:
“I guess that it is only at this point in time that will be discussed if Red Bull fail to find a solution, which I really hope will not be the situation.”
Should Renault get the task of supplying red bull, it’ll mark a switch from works partnership to customer partnership. And while I do think SCENARIO 1 is most likely, I’ve laid out what also could be possible moving forward for Red Bull regarding their power situations for 2022 and beyond.
- SCENARIO 2 AND MOST INTERESTING, BUT NOT LIKELY: MERCEDES
- SCENARIO 3 AND LEAST LIKELY: FERRARI
- SCENARIO 4 AND NEAR IMPOSSIBLE: OUTSIDE OR OWN
In nearly all these scenarios, F1 will only have 3 engine suppliers – a feat that has only happened a handful of times. Most notably, the 1973,74, and 80 seasons saw significantly more teams fielded at each race. Teams had significantly more room to differentiate their cars and reliability was the major wild card. The other more modern and notable instance of just 3 power suppliers was 2014, the start of the new turbo hybrid era.
So while it’s rare, it’s not unthinkable. And while Honda’s involvement in F1 has come and gone, each instance is predicated on some sort of global landscape shift – usually economic. So while I maintain this likely had some financial implications tied to it given the current conditions globally, it also signals a changing of the sport is on the horizon.
My own personal take is that the true problem of this partly rests with the brand identity crisis Formula 1 found themselves in with the introduction of the turbo hybrid era. The implication isn’t that turbo hybrid technology is bad. It’s simply a comment on the fact that Formula 1 is “the pinnacle of racing”. How many times have you heard that?
But Formula 1 has not made up its mind about what it wants to be. Or better said, it’s constantly at odds with the sport it wants to be having to make concessions to fund the dream. These concessions include capitulating to the needs of a manufacturer that is funded by their road cars. Ultimately, when you run a sport that way, you have to always be thinking what’s best for the good of the global consumer.
“Win sunday, sell monday ” gets a whole lot less effective if people are buying more and more green. With each engine restriction and each move that attempts to distance us from the ICE, we inch closer and closer to other racing categories that can rightly begin to argue their contention for the “pinnacle of racing”.
Aero rules aren’t looking like they are going to expand. The only major disruption you can add to the sport if we continue down this path is to ease fuel flow restrictions as well as open back up the use of exotic or advanced hybrid fuels. This could serve as an eloquent solution that is relatively in line with green initiatives while maximizing the output of the power unit systems that would yield increased speed, power, and most importantly, major innovation that could give teams the runway to find space up the grid.
So Liberty/FOM if you are watching: NEXT GEN FUELS PLEASE.
Just one Cranky Yankee’s hot take.
So is the exit of Honda a potential destroyer of Formula 1?
Honda’s now 4th exit is the tangible manifestation of a sport at its knees stuck in no man’s land. A sport not sure if they want to be the cost effective, loud, simple single seater giving the best races possible globally, or the genuine pinnacle of motor racing. The former threatening the elite image of the sport while the latter not consistent with the agenda of the type of team that ACTUALLY afford to be in the sport to begin with.
So no, Honda didn’t kill F1. They are not the executioners, IMO.
I’d amend that narrative designating Honda more so as the coroners; here to validate the fear of many F1 fans about the slow decay of a sport struggling to adapt.
They have decided that the sport’s current trajectory is one that puts them on pace that is less distinctive of the pinnacle of racing. So I can understand there are more cost effective ways to market their racing heritage and for them to further develop their advanced technology in line with their own objectives.
Now that we’ve covered all that nuance – the real question remains…
Now that Red Bull has lost their engine, will Max go with it? Only time will tell.
Make sure to check back in for all the breaking Formula 1 news and for the detailed deep dives that accompany all coverage.
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