Honda and Red Bull logos, Circuit de Catalunya, 2018

Why is Honda really leaving for a fourth time – and should F1 be concerned?

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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.

Honda last left F1 after dire 2008 campaign
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.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Red Bull Ring, 2019
Honda extended their F1 programme after Verstappen’s win
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.

Pierre Gasly, AlphaTauri, , Monza, 2020
Gasly’s Monza victory didn’t stop Honda swinging the axe
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.”

Takuma Sato, RLL, Indycar, Indianapolis 500, 2020
Petrol-electric hybrids suit Honda in IndyCar
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.

Ferrari could give Red Bull another headache
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.

Five wins in the last 14 months couldn’t keep Honda in F1
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.

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Dieter Rencken
Dieter Rencken has held full FIA Formula 1 media accreditation since 2000, during which period he has reported from over 300 grands prix, plus...

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  • 28 comments on “Why is Honda really leaving for a fourth time – and should F1 be concerned?”

    1. I always wondered if Honda might have come back as a full factory team if their engine had performed well straight away.
      Unfortunately the terrible years with McLaren would have caused them grave doubts and now with rule changes and Covid it probably just makes sense to quit quick and tighten the purse strings :/

    2. In MotoGP Honda is in worse position than KTM and Aprillia, had it not been for Covid restrictions they would be joining Aprillia as a concession manufacturer back of the field. For Honda winning in MotoGP means more than any other racing series. Largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world struggling to keep up with their Japanese competitors is quite shameful and some staff from F1 program might be reallocated to MotoGP program.

      1. I doubt MotoGP, more likely moved to their IndyCar program.

    3. I agree. Why not bring the next change in engine formula forward by a year or two, so to 2025 (as was at one point the plan from what I understood) or 2024 if not even 2023?
      As for Red Bull keeping on using the Honda PU post-2021: Unrealistic to happen as they’d need Honda personnel to run the PUs, which they, of course, wouldn’t get since Honda will leave altogether – furthermore, they’d have to keep on using the 2021-spec PU until the end of the current engine formula cycle, so there’d also be this downside making matters unideal. Realistically for Red Bull (and its satellite-team AlphaTauri) to continue in F1 beyond the end of next season, it’s Mercedes, Renault, Ferrari, or nothing.

      1. ‘I agree’ wasn’t supposed to be there at the beginning. I typed the portion about bringing the engine formula change forward elsewhere and copy-pasted it here but forgot to remove ‘I agree’ before posting.

    4. With Indycar’s switch to hybrid delayed to 2023, we might see Ferrari join Indycar with Vettel in 2023

      1. Pretty sure Ferrari will join, but their driver line up (& Vettel?) TBD.

    5. I think another factor is that with new rules of 3 engines a year per car they “sell” a max of 12 power units a year and any failure draws considerable attention and comment. The development investment needed to provide power units that have high power and last is not to be taken lightly. There is a good chance that this approach is more expensive then the old “unlimited” formula. For Honda there is a limited upside and considerable downside. My question is why the ever wanted to do F1 again.

      1. Agree re the relative cost of “longlife” engines, back in golden days they rebuilt engines overnight with only 3 or 4 mechanics per car, nowadays they have twice (or more) the personnel and there is no savings on parts as the engines they build are built using only the best of many parts after extensive testing and inspection. No doubt Anon will set me straight.

    6. How much does the pride of the proud Japanese People infect the idea that Most recent F1 program never did rise to expectation. Once the best of several generation, their racing mills that really did well.
      This last attempt made me believe that Honda was back… watch out !! I thought this MFG will return to previous levels. Why not as it was their lineage.
      The reality of the Black Mercedes dominance must have slapped Honda squarely on the side of the head. Quietly they disappear and soon they will be gone.
      Odds are they WILL be back after this next Gen gets established. I think they are looking five years into the future as to see if the opportunity to regain their market place from racing will seem worthy of pursuit. By then a lot of teens will be motivated to invest in Honda.
      When your product is good people will buy. Right now Formula One must be thought of as a investment that will yield much less because of this reputation they now face.
      Im waiting to see how they overcome the reputation of their current product.

    7. although the ramifications are manifold???
      Should that be Manyfold?

        1. Ferrari supplied Minardi with (junk, admittedly – the story behind this is quite interesting) V12s in 1991, I believe the Sauber deal was 1997 onwards?

          Have to agree with your opinion on Honda, F1 really doesn’t need mayflies right now, nor corporate hubris.

          All this stuff shines a light on Renault though, what are they in F1 for, exactly?

    8. Jose Lopes da Silva
      7th October 2020, 18:41

      Depending on the macroeconomic conditions, who wonders what will happen to Renault. There is a limit for how France can subsidize it.

      The future of F1 could be a grid full of garagistes with an AMG power unit.

    9. HPD in IndyCar is an American company with separate budget and leadership structure from Japanese HRD in F1. Japanese Honda is the owner of both HPD and HRD but the American part is being run pretty much independently (that is, as long as Alonso doesn’t try to hitch a ride in a Honda-powered IndyCar for the 500) where HRD is directly operated by Honda company brass. What HPD is doing in the US doesn’t necessarily reflect what the prevailing thinking of the moment is in Japan so one shouldn’t be making any conclusions about Japanese Honda based on what is happening in the US.

    10. It doesn’t look as though anyone’s ready to admit that these hybrid engines have been disasterous for F1…

      1. No and you still get people on here including the writer of this (excellent) piece saying f1 has ‘always been at the forefront of technology.’ Oh really?

        Tell that to the people running Ford DFVs 15 years after they first appeared and still winning with them. Tell that to the teams who developed: twin chassis, double diffusers, electronic suspensions, ground effect, blown exhaust, the list goes on and on of the ‘forefront of technology’ ingenuity that has been banned.

        No, the simple reason we have hybrid is to keep the manufacturers in. When they goes, it goes. Monstrously expensive and complex AND boring AND detracts from ‘ the show’. Everyone in f1knows it but they knew aero kills the show 20 years ago and look where we are with that.

    11. Wow, that’s a scathing assessment. I’m pretty sure Red Bull were paying next to nothing for the engines, so when looking at the books and realising it’s going to cost a lot of money to acheive their goals, I can totally understand why Honda nixed this operation.

      Honda have a great history in F1, and they should be proud of it.

      As an engine manufacturer, Honda has won six World Constructors’ Championships, five World Drivers’ Championships and over 70 Grands Prix, ranking fifth in Formula One history. In addition to their success as an engine manufacturer, their three Grand Prix wins as a team make them the only Japanese or Asian team to win in Formula One.

      from Wikipedia

      There are a lot of engine manufacturers in the world, and it’s not as if there are many begging to be in F1. Just surprised all the blame is being placed on Honda in this article.

      1. @skipgamer,
        Scathing assessment indeed. To some(probably), Honda leaving f1 has more impact on the sport’s credibility than its future technological direction or the supposed road relevance.

        As @johnrkh mentions below, Daimler and Renault both are distancing themselves with AMG and Alpine names. The automobile industry is changing rapidly now, with low sales, electrification, more stringent emissions rules etc. F1 is simply feeling the impact of it. And my gut feeling is there’s more to come. Recently Mark Hughes wrote an article arguing that the a new generations of privateers could possibly become F1’s saviours.

    12. something not mentioned in the article is Honda ceasing it’s F1 program will free up hundreds of millions of dollars for R&D. While closing down the Indy car program would not benefit the Honda directly as it’s rum by a separate company.
      On the subject of manufacturers leaving F1 It’s obvious that Daimler Benz and Renault are moving to distance themselves from the sport. Both companies are facing ongoing losses and at the same time need to increase spending on developing EV tech as well as other fuel alternatives. The main issue though is building their green credentials and increasing their market share in a rapidly changing motoring world.
      It would not be surprising to see in the future one or both contract out or sell off their F1 teams to be run as semi factory operations prior to 2025.
      Liberty are still working on the PU regs for 2025 and I would expect they are in talks with the manufacturers to try and reach an agreement that will keep them in the sport, at least as PU suppliers. Can Liberty convince Merc & Renault that staying in F1 will not harm their efforts to sell clean energy vehicles. As usual the hurdle to overcome will probably be Ferrari.

    13. Bring back V10s but to be fuelled by Bio-Fuels?

      Carbon Neutral?

      1. H2O, presumably, more likely H?

    14. Timothy Sperisen
      8th October 2020, 5:57

      This is one of the best articles I ever read about F1 and Honda. Well done, Mr. Rencken.

    15. The concluding paragraph is fantastic @dieterrencken

    16. 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.

      Yes. Add to that their wish to develop staff had already been realized.

    17. Jesus, this writer is a bit angry…

    18. Mark in Florida
      8th October 2020, 21:55

      Honda in my opinion blew it from the start with their engine effort. They came in late and even though they had time to scope out how others were doing it they went with a small turbo to fit the McLaren size O concept. They built an engine that was not sophisticated or novel at all. It was a setup that seemed straight out of the 80s simply bolted to the hybrid part. They wanted to come in and look like the Honda of old without realizing they are just an old Honda.

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