How Honda improved its power units without exploiting ‘reliability fixes’

2021 Austrian Grand Prix

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Honda says it has unlocked more performance since the beginning of the season but denies this was achieved through any changes introduced through its second power unit in France.

Lewis Hamilton has repeatedly referred to the second power unit Honda introduced at the French Grand Prix as an “upgrade”, despite manufacturers being forbidden from introducing performance improvements during the championship.

Honda’s technical director Toyoharu Tanabe said it was “not true” that the team had found another 15bhp from the engines it ran at Paul Ricard.

“Under current regulations any performance update is not allowed to apply during the season,” he said. “As a result our second PU [power unit] is the same as first PU in terms of specification and performance.”

Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff has suggested Honda may have made changes to its power unit to fix reliability problems, which they are permitted to do, and by doing so are now able to run their engine in higher performance modes. Tanabe also denied this is the case.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Red Bull Ring, 2021
Red Bull-Honda have won the last five races
“The current performance improvement is as a result from the hard work from Honda and [its] teams,” he said. “Under the current PU regulation we need to submit any changes.

“[We’re] only allowed to change for reliability, cost reason and logistics. Then we need to submit very detailed [documents] to the FIA first and the FIA approve those changes. FIA distribute all documents to the other PU manufacturers. So we need to have [approval] from the other PU manufacturers to change any single parts specification.”

“A long time ago some team improved their performance through making a change to improve the reliability,” Tanabe noted. “So we are very careful [not] to change the performance and then it is not possible to improve the performance during the season. That my answer to that suspicion.”

However Tanabe confirmed the performance of Honda’s power unit has improved during the season.

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“I can say yes because we started to use this new 2021 PU from the pre-season test and then we have been learning gradually how to use our PU.

Guanyu Zhou, Alpine, Red Bull Ring, 2021
Gallery: 2021 Austrian Grand Prix practice in pictures
“We improved our weakness and we push our strengths and then as a result, the base specification and performance is the same, but the trackside performance I believe we have been improving.”

These gains have come about through improvements in Honda’s understanding of how its power unit operates and how it tailors its performance to each track, said Tanabe.

“[Once] we understand our PU, ICE and ERS system, we go to a different track every time, so we simulate how to use the balance for ICE and electronic systems. So then we optimise the usage of the PU in terms of lap time.

“Current technical directives give us a little bit harder time. We need to run qualifying and the race in the same mode. So that type of stimulation. And then when we come to the track we run in the real-world and they update the that type of calibration to maximise our performance.”

Tanabe said scrutiny of the global positioning data teams use to infer details of their rivals’ engine performance proves the new power units introduced in France were not the source of the performance gain.

“Maybe [if] someone compares the GPS data from the first one and second one you easily can find out the gap between Mercedes, Ferrari, Renault and the Honda. That is the easiest way to find how Honda uses its PU from the beginning of the season.”

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2021 Austrian Grand Prix

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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...
Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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24 comments on “How Honda improved its power units without exploiting ‘reliability fixes’”

  1. This is quite possibly the least technical response you’ll find in response to this story, but…

    The big, bold, white “HONDA” decal on the rear wing of that Red Bull looks beautiful. I think the The Red Bull livery is pretty stunning anyway, but the Aston Martin logo looked a bit “busy”. The simple graphics on the Red Bull really look bold and stand out. Many cars look like they came up with the colour scheme as dictated by the corporate branding element of the company and then stuck the sponsor logos on where they’d fit. The Red Bull looks thought out and I don’t think it’s ever looked as good as it does now.

    I really hope that Honda reverse their decision to leave F1. I know Red Bull will maintain the PU under the freeze, but I’ll definitely miss that big HONDA on the rear wing!

    1. The bigger the “big, bold, white, HONDA” the easier it is to read from a distance;)

      1. It’s also notable that it’s not a luxury or performance branding. The same brand on your lawn mower is stomping Ferrari on the track. I guess one issue for Honda is that they use “Acura” in the US for their higher margin, sorry, more upscale, products but not elsewhere.

        1. @dmw, that’s a great point. I’ve never really thought about it before, but other than when Toyota where in F1, the recent marques are all luxury brands (as far as car manufacturers go) apart from Honda.

          I really hope that if they win the WCC/WDC they will consider that reason enough to stay in F1. That big HONDA on the rear wing looks like a good bit of advertising!

        2. Sounds like Renault is missing out on a marketing opportunity.
          Nice feeling that my lawnmower can do a “Coupe de grass” on a Ferrari.

          1. The reliability of the Renault was not the marketing they liked.
            So now they have a somewhat anonymous name for the normal consumer.

          2. Coupe de grass. Underrated comment. 😂. A Honda add popped up here on the site now. So QED on the marketing thing.

    2. @geekzilla9000 They won’t. I highly doubt they’d reverse anymore.

  2. Binotto made a statement that as per their analysis, Honda’s PU was running in a detuned mode since round 2 but is now no longer detuned since France. Coincidentally, France was the round they got a new engine.

    I think the engine no. 1 probably had a slight manufacturing defect somewhere. Which is why Honda debuted engine no. 2 so soon. They will probably use the detuned engine in Hungary or other power insensitive circuits.

    1. That’s a rational analysis from an outsider. Binotto said that they are now seeing the same level of performance showed by Honda in Bahrain. It’s matter of Honda being unable in the previous races to run its PU on that level constantly. Wolff & Hamilton are trying to create a narrative that Honda have deceived the FIA with performance upgrades passed as reliability fixes. Just curious to hear what they will come up with next after the bendy wings, engine upgrade, fast pit stops…

      1. The narrative that Mercedes have tried to create is a false one, and as with the flexiwings, it has the impression of undermining the authority of the FIA.

        When it comes to the engine, every single change a manufacturer would like to make is sent to the FIA and the other manufacturers for approval, before any changes are allowed to be made.

        In fact one could say that Mercedes is producing fake news, and the FIA should not allow itsself to be so abused in the press by a competitor.

        Reply moderated
        1. I don’t always agree with your views, but I do on this one.

          Mercedes can’t win on track. So they’re playing politics and the media much more than usual.

      2. @tifoso1989 The new “spec” engine is producing better performance than it did before. So performance upgrade.

        Binotto also states that:

        “Honda has replaced some parts of the engine to improve the reliability of the power unit and with that they have solved their problems. Having solved the reliability issues with it, they can now fully exploit their potential again.

        So as far as he knows there was an actual reliability upgrade and he would be informed of Honda replacing parts. So both Binotto and Wolff say that parts were changed for reliability reasons.

        1. This looks spot on.

          Honda and Red Bull said they were throwing everything into this engine which I think is actually the ’22 engine brought forward a year since the exit decision. They’ll have been running it detuned to figure out where the reliability issues are likely to be having skipped much of the dyno development with it. Now they’ve got an engine and a bunch of real mileage out of the way they’ll have made some pure reliability changes which they’ll now be using to tune up and unlock further performance.

          1. Look, people just want to know whether Toto Wolff or Christian Horner is a bad person. Are you saying that reality is complicated and facts don’t clearly resolve the question of whether this is an “upgrade”? We need villains, not nuance.

        2. @f1osaurus
          No they are not saying the same thing, here is Binotto’s statement in Italian :

          I nostri dati GPS mostrano che le prestazioni del motore Honda sono al livello di inizio mondiale in Bahrain prima che accusassero dei problemi

          Which translates to (by me, no translator) : Our GPS data demonstrates that the performance of the Honda engine are on the level of the start of the season in Bahrain before they had problems.

          Suppongo abbiano corso con una potenza leggermente ridotta nelle prime gare per tenere sotto controllo l’affidabilità, ma ora che hanno superato questi problemi sono tornati alle prestazioni di inizio stagione, e quindi non si tratta di vera e propria crescita

          I suppose that they have raced with a detuned power in the first races to keep reliability under control, but now they have overcome those problems they are back to their performance of the start of the season and it’s not about a proper upgrade.

          I don’t know how you have interpreted Binotto’s statement in this way because it was clear that he was taking a jab at Mercedes by saying that they were distracted this year by the fact that key staff have left or changed positions and that they confirmed Hamilton only in February.

          Reply moderated
          1. @tifoso1989 That’s not the point. Binotto said they replaced parts. Horner pretends they didn’t

            The notion that getting upgrading the performance “back” to what they had when they had unlimited engine supply is ridiculous though. That’s the whole problem with reliability upgrades.

          2. @f1osaurus
            Binotto never said that they replaced parts. Where have you read that ? I’ve read his entire statement in Italian and he literally said that any engine upgrade is not permitted by the rules.

            Besides, as mentioned by SadF1fan. Engine modifications for reliability reasons with the new rules must be sent to the FIA and the other manufacturers for approval. So do you think Honda have tricked the FIA, Renault, Ferrari and especially Mercedes whom I’m sure with their sour losers attitude will categorically refuse any request to get Honda off the hook and passed performance upgrades as reliability fixes.

            If they did that (I’m sure they didn’t), they deserve admiration and Toto has to blame only his team.

          3. @tifoso1989 I posted that quote above.

            And no I don’t think Honda tricked them all. I already said that that’s how both Wolff and Binotto know that parts were changed. They would have been informed of such changes.

            Ferrari is also making “reliability” changes to their engine, so it’s purely in their own interest to pretend that an obvious performance gain towards maximum one lap performance shown during winter testing is not an issue. Ridiculous nonsense.

    2. Honda debuted engine no. 2 so soon

      What do you mean soon? It was after Mercedes, and together with Renault. I don’t get this need to spin something around Honda.

      And Tanabe is actually being too polite about what was quite serious allegations.

  3. Not that complicated. More VTEC stickers on the car.

  4. This reads like “Oh no, we didn’t do any changes to the engine. But it’s better now, that is correct. How? Magic.”

    1. Then try reading it again.. they did not say that or even implied that.
      Its a clear to understand explanation. Of course you still can think the earth is flat..

      1. They changed some parts. The engine now makes more power. It’s obviously possible than you can run amore reliable engine harder. No one is accusing Honda of breaking the rules on “upgrades” as written. It is curious though that Honda and RBR keep updating the brief with more information about special oils and operational developments. But I would be surprised to hear that they snuck in a proper “upgrade,” i.e., a non-reliability improvement, because the rules police that closely.

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