Have Honda chosen the wrong time to pull out of F1 – again?

2021 United States Grand Prix

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Honda’s history in Formula 1 is of joining. And leaving. And joining. And leaving again. Have they mis-timed their departure again?

When the Japanese automaker announced it would leave F1 at the end of the 2021, many were disappointed, but few were surprised. Coming in the midst of 2020, amid the global upheaval of the pandemic any car manufacturer could have easily justified withdrawing their motorsport programmes. Others, notably BMW and Audi, also did.

Honda leaving F1, though, was unsurprising for other reasons. It has some form in this regard.

This is Honda’s fourth spell in F1. It won races as a full constructor in the sixties, then powered Williams and McLaren to championship victories in the eighties and nineties. It returned in the noughties first as an engine manufacturer, then took over a team again.

The latter exit was perhaps its least well-timed. Despite poor 2007 and 2008 campaigns the car it was building for new 2009 regulations won the championship. But it did so powered by Mercedes and branded as Brawn GP, Honda having left. Six years later they were back again to start over from scratch with monumentally challenging new power unit regulations.

Honda canned its last F1 programme at the end of 2008…
With a combined 27 years in the sport, Honda has been part of 38% of all the years F1 has existed – just two years shorter than Mercedes, in total. Unlike Mercedes, however, who after initially leaving in the 1950s have stuck with F1 since their re-entry in 1994, Honda have managed to leave the sport twice since then, the most recent on what seems like a strange high to depart from.

While the constructors’ championship has tilted in Mercedes’ favour over the latter rounds, it would only take one strong, combined weekend for Red Bull to turn that around. Going into the United States Grand Prix, Honda-powered Max Verstappen has once again taken the lead in the drivers’ championship there’s no reason to think Lewis Hamilton will be able to run away with it in the remainder of the year.

If Honda go on to win a title then it’ll be the first time non-Mercedes power unit has done so in the hybrid era. That makes it a strange time to leave, all the more so considering power unit specifications will be frozen next year, though that is partly a consequence of their departure. Even so, while Honda-designed power units may go on winning in 2022 and beyond, they will be branded by Red Bull.

But F1 remains, for the immediate future, far and away Honda’s biggest opportunity to showcase it can and has developed hybrid and electrified technology. Honda’s journey towards electrification and hybridisation as a road car manufacturer has been slower than some of its competitors.

Jenson Button, Brawn GP, Istanbul, 2009
…having funded the car which dominated the 2009 season
Nissan make what was the biggest-selling battery electric vehicle ever (the Leaf) and Toyota’s Prius has been the poster-car of hybrids for two decades. Honda, meanwhile, has made one all-electric model – the tiny, if extremely charming Honda E – and never really had a hybrid hit, only recently adding a recovery system to the CR-V.

Honda is lagging so much it has resorted to a collaboration with GM to build its first four electrified models, using the US automotive group’s Ultium electric vehicle platform. In a bizarre contrast to its approach in F1 Honda will become, effectively, a powertrain customer for road cars. A strange outcome, from the six years on the bleeding edge of power unit technology, during which time its gone from the humiliation of its 2015 return with McLaren to title contenders with Red Bull.

Politically, of course, it’s more complicated than that. F1’s road relevance is extremely limited, during a time of immense change in the automotive industry. Still, AlphaTauri team principal Franz Tost believes there are mixed feelings within Honda about its departure.

“I can’t talk in the name of the management and of the board from Honda,” said Tost. “But, as you know, the great manufacturers, there are some people, some managers who were happy to do Formula 1 and others that think the company should go in another direction. Honda has decided to go out from Formula 1 and nevertheless there is a close cooperation with Honda and Red Bull Technology in the future.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Istanbul Park, 2021
Verstappen is leading the title fight with Honda power
“Whether then Honda will come back, I don’t know. Currently, they have decided to stop at the end of this year and will provide us and Red Bull Racing with engines in 2022 and from 2023 the engines will be designed and built by Red Bull Powertrain Technology Group and the rest we will see.”

It’s not hard to understand the bemusement that Honda, which has done a better job of taking the fight to the dominant Mercedes than Ferrari and Renault, are walking away from F1 just as they are reaping the greatest rewards of their investment and effort. But the competition is far removed from the road cars it actually sells and there are plenty of justifications – from engineering reallocation to just the visuals of allowing focus to stray from road development – to end that.

The pressures of the exposure F1 brings to an carmaker’s image are immense. And Honda certainly took the pain during its time with McLaren. Out the other side of that, though, there’s a risk that it may once again be leaving just on the edge of greatness.

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2021 United States Grand Prix

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Author information

Hazel Southwell
Hazel is a freelance journalist who roams the paddocks of Formula E, covering the technical and emotional elements of electric racing. Usually found at...

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16 comments on “Have Honda chosen the wrong time to pull out of F1 – again?”

  1. It certainly looks like they are running away from the sport at the wrong moment right now. I guess that if they step out after winning this year, they can at least point to the fact that stepping out a year earlier would have been a worse call!

  2. Their plan was to stop after 2020, but they did sign a one-year extension with Red Bull.
    In hindsight, that extra year made a very big difference; if luck will have it they may leave the sport as champions.

  3. Australian Mercedes Benz dealerships launch $650m legal action against Mercedes. Get your popcorn ready for some action. It’s involves Mercedes and cars in general and the following legal case will be quite sporting. So yes it is relevant to this site. :-)

  4. Aah, I really did like that white, green and blue RA108. Then again I also liked the 07. When I first got into F1 my ‘team’ if anything was BAR-Honda, and I followed them into just Honda. I don’t know why but kid me just liked most of the Honda-powered teams. I was elated to have them back with McLaren – even if the results were poor and the switch to the Red Bull teams united my ‘favourite engine’ if there is such a thing with one of my favourite teams.

    In answer to the question – yes. Even if Brawn GP won with a Merc engine, to me it’ll always be the RA109, and given the car had to be adapted to fit the Merc unit it would have been fascinating to see if Honda would have continued winning with it. Just like now, it’ll be interesting to see if Red Bull go on to continue winning with their engine as Honda jump ship just on the cusp of glory – again. It’s almost like they’re afraid of failure to such an extent that leaving before a potential loss is preferable to risking it for a victory.

    The loss of them from F1 will impact me as a fan and supporter and I think F1 will be lesser without them. But even so the continual arrive-leave-arrive-leave merry go round of engine and car manufactuers has solidified me in disliking them in general – that’s a criticism of all of them, they’re too fickle, too quick to leave. Though can a customer team win a world championship? I doubt it.

    1. Playing the game of if’s and buts 2009 Button/Barrichello Honda, 2010 Button/Kobayashi Honda, Schumacher comeback wouldn’t have happened, There would have been a fight who can get that seat that Barrichello left vacant. Honda lured Kobayashi from Toyota to partner Button. 2011-2013 Button retires after 2013 and Kobayashi misses just that final push to become n1 so in 2014 (when they have won 4 titles with Button) They sign Alonso and Yamamoto to lead the team to the hybrid era and maybe buy Caterham to become their no2 team. Then they would have failed to make a good engine and Alonso would still have been with 2 titles. Then they would have signed of just like now after the pandemic just to win the title this year with Yamamoto who was loyal to them until 2021. Alonso would have left after 4 years with struggles.

    2. @rocketpanda

      and given the car had to be adapted to fit the Merc unit it would have been fascinating to see if Honda would have continued winning with it

      Unlikely, the Honda V8 was awful. Whilst the Honda/Brawn chassis was exceptional I seriously doubt it would have been a race winning car with the Honda engine.

  5. Two realities may be noteworthy in this discussion:

    1) Honda probably left due to the hugely negative feedback from McLaren which they likely took real seriously (internally) – since McLaren is no HaaS or Williams. Their management probably thought they themselves were lacking, while projecting a confident image via RedBull, and due their already sunk investment.

    2) Honda/RedBull are probably only leading due to one guy – Max Verstappen. (it is not like the two RedBulls are 1, 2 as McLaren used to once dominate with Prost/Senna) AND the Alfas are competing with McLaren and Ferrari mainly due to Honda power. It’s Max.

  6. Honda realized f1 was not fair, or pehaps not fair enough for them.
    Honda had high hopes for 2020, their pre-season press conferences were their most confident and ambitious, their data looked good and pre-season looked promising at first.
    Honda was confident that they could challenge mercedes and after the fia deemed the ferrari pu illegal, Honda must have felt good about enduring many torrid seasons, the y did their job and so did the fia. However after pre-season they saw a bump in performance for mercedes, one they could not justify, in the midst of all the ferrari “talk”, Honda were, for the first time, pointing the finger at a rival, not ferrari, but mercedes.
    Honda could not account for mercedes’ advantage, just like merc could not account for ferrari’s. Honda gave f1 a chance to reply. F1 did not reply.
    A couple of months after that press conference Honda announced their departure from the sport. It was rumoured that mercedes had hired some ferrari engineers and that is how they became aware of what ferrari was doing on their pu and also how they managed to get such a big bump in performance.

  7. I think that Honda shouldn’t be allowed to come back to F1 for at least the next 15 years. Their recent record show no commitment over the sport, over people’s job, over anything. As of now they are not much different of the Tony Fernandes, Richards Bensons and alikes.

    1. As of now they are not much different of the Tony Fernandes, Richards Bensons and alikes.

      Pretty sure not being much different than successful entrepreneurs is a good thing.

      1. “successful”. Tell me more about all the decades that they spent in the sport, please.

    2. Stay as RedBull-Acura and stun the world.

  8. Honda wanted to reduce their commitment (read as $$$ and technical manpower) in racing and in F1 in particular.
    They have done this and this is setting up RedBull Powertrains as a result. Bonus to us. It would seem they are managing the withdrawal quite well.
    For all the chatter about Honda pulling out of a Power Unit supply arrangement, what about Mercedes.? They have shrunk their ownership of the team to a 1/3rd share. Ineos and T Wolff being the other equal owners. The future of the Mercedes Power Unit side of the business, while appearing stable, not cast in stone. Mercedes Benz seems to be on a major world wide asset sell-off program.
    Has Honda made the right decision.? Sometimes a decision doesn’t need to be right, it just needs to be made and carried through with conviction. My vote, yes, the right move.

  9. It’s not hard to understand the bemusement that Honda, which has done a better job of taking the fight to the dominant Mercedes than Ferrari and Renault

    I don’t fully agree on this. It’s the combination of Honda PU, RBR chassis and Max Verstappen that has given Mercedes a stronger challenge than what Ferrari ever did in the hybrid era.
    In 2018 and especially in 2019 Ferrari did have the benchmark PU in F1. In 2018, they lacked the driver, Alonso or Verstappen in that car would have surely gave Hamilton a good run for his money. In 2019, they were lagging in the chassis department and the car was only good in power sensitive tracks.

    1. Ferrari were operationally not on the level of Mercedes in 2017 and 18. Regardless of what you think of Vettel, they dropped the ball majorly when it came to strategy, reliability and general areas of performance such as pitstops. The idea that it was Vettel alone who was responsible for the state of Ferrari’s campaigns is stale and uninformed.

  10. I never wanted them to leave.

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