Honda had “harsh feedback” over its split from Red Bull. Were the critics right?

Formula 1

Posted on

| Written by

The news of Honda’s latest return to Formula 1 was considered important enough that no less than its global CEO Toshihiro Mibe appeared before the media today to announce it.

As he did, Mibe also referred to the company’s last deprature from F1. That was announced less than three years ago and came into effect at the end of the 2021 season, just 17 months past.

Mibe stressed the decision to sever its ties with Red Bull, who went on to take Max Verstappen to the 2021 championship using Honda’s power units, was a “difficult” one for the company. It attracted considerable debate and criticism, not least as Red Bull went on to dominate the next two seasons using Honda-developed engines.

“In 2020, when we announced our decision to conclude our F1 participation, we received a variety of harsh feedbacks from members of the media and our fans,” said Mibe. “It was an agonising but necessary decision for Honda in order to strengthen our initiatives toward the realisation of carbon neutrality.

Verstappen won the title as Honda bowed out in 2021
“The decision has produced the desired effect within our company. In the meantime, we would like to sincerely thank racing fans whose excitement and support to our F1 activities have always been a great motivation. We will strive to respond to their cheers and expectations more than ever before.”

Honda rapidly reversed its decision to give up on F1. It has already begun work on a power unit for the new 2026 regulations which will be used by Aston Martin.

But does Honda’s sudden U-turn prove it made a mistake by leaving in the first place – and that the “harsh” criticism it faced was warranted?

Advert | Become a RaceFans supporter and go ad-free

It’s easy to criticise Honda’s departure in light of the success it went on to enjoy with Red Bull. But most of that lay ahead of it when it announced its exit.

Honda, Circuit de Catalunya
Feature: Why Honda’s fourth departure is different – and what it says about F1
Under the V6 hybrid turbo regulations, cars powered by Honda-developed engines have won 39 grands prix. But by October 2nd 2020, when Honda told media it would pull out of F1 at the end of the following season, it had just five wins under the current rules.

Did the torrent of wins which followed look likely to materialise at that point? Not really. Honda’s most recent triumph, Pierre Gasly’s victory in the Italian Grand Prix, was a somewhat fortunate win aided by a timely red flag interruption. And it had only taken one other victory that season.

But while Red Bull-Honda didn’t look certain to displace Mercedes as F1’s leading team, they had clearly emerged as the closest threat, and that is something the Japanese manufacturer tossed away too lightly.

Honda had returned to F1 with McLaren in 2015, reforming their powerhouse partnership of the 1980s and 1990s. But the reunion lasted three largely miserable seasons and ended in a humiliating divorce.

Another blow to Honda’s pride came when it agreed an engine supply deal with Sauber, only to see the team cancel the plan following a change of management. Eventually, after a year supplying engines to Toro Rosso (now AlphaTauri), Red Bull became convinced of Honda’s potential.

Advert | Become a RaceFans supporter and go ad-free

In 2019 the new alliance scored a breakthrough victory at the Red Bull Ring, the first of three wins that season. When Ferrari endured a dire 2020 campaign, Red Bull-Honda emerged as Mercedes’ closest challenger.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Nurburgring, 2020
Red Bull were trailing Mercedes when Honda left
But it was still a distant threat. On the day Honda announced it was done with F1, Red Bull had little more than half of Mercedes’ points total that season.

Soon after Honda confirmed its plans to leave, events swung in Red Bull’s favour. An aerodynamic rules tweak for the 2021 season hit Mercedes especially hard, and suddenly Verstappen was in the thick of a championship fight with Lewis Hamilton. He prevailed – albeit under deeply contentious circumstances – leaving Honda in the bizarre position of celebrating a championship triumph while they headed for the exit.

After F1’s regulations reset of 2022 it took a few months for Red Bull to find their stride, having sunk so much effort into the previous year’s campaign it handed Ferrari an opportunity to close up. But Red Bull were soon back on top (arguably aided by their 2021 budget cap overspend, the penalty for which is still being meted out) and at the time of writing they have won 15 of the last 16 races.

No wonder Honda’s decision to leave looks questionable in retrospect. In their defence, it is easy to forget how much of Red Bull’s success came after the announcement of their departure.

Honda had sunk huge sums into improving its F1 engine. In 2020 the costly development race was still going on, and the manufacturer could expect that programme to consume more funds which it wanted to deploy elsewhere. Only after Honda’s exit did F1 teams agree to freeze power unit development, which ironically made remaining in the series more attractive. While the manufacturer agreed to help Red Bull continue running the engines it had already developed through its Honda Racing Corporation identity, as the team became F1’s dominant force the Honda stickers soon returned to the engine covers.

Advert | Become a RaceFans supporter and go ad-free

Even taking all this into account, Honda’s 2020 decision to leave still appears hasty in retrospect. They had been working with Red Bull for less than two years and made considerable strides in improving their competitiveness. Five wins over two years was a huge improvement over what they had done up to that point in the V6 hybrid turbo era, and begs the question how great a gain was needed in order to avoid it leaving the sport?

No manufacturer has come and gone from F1 as readily as Honda. They had a full works programme in the 1960s, then returned as an engine manufacturer in the 1980s and ’90s and enjoyed huge success. After leaving and returning again as an engine supplier, Honda went down the full team route again for what turned out to be just three years before it quit again – this time leaving behind an extraordinarily competitive car it had developed at huge expense. That car went on to take a championship sweep using Mercedes power, laying the groundwork for that brand to emerge as F1’s new power.

As they prepare to make their latest return, the question is whether Honda can not only produce a competitive package, but rediscover the staying power which yielded its golden period over 30 years ago.

2023 F1 season

Browse all 2023 F1 season articles

Author information

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...

Got a potential story, tip or enquiry? Find out more about RaceFans and contact us here.

11 comments on “Honda had “harsh feedback” over its split from Red Bull. Were the critics right?”

  1. My head hurts from all the Honda articles. Honda has both dominated F1 and F1Fanatic.

    1. VTEC has just kicked in since last week…

  2. Coventry Climax
    24th May 2023, 15:37

    They had ample time to come back on their decision to leave. But made the decision to come back, once the door with Red Bull was shut. I thought their relationship was quite good, but maybe something was going on in the background?
    So now they team up with Aston Martin for ’26 and onwards. How much ‘onwards’ is always the question with Honda.
    I like Honda, and the AM roadcars are beautiful, but I don’t particularly like the AM F1 team.

  3. Apart from corporate marketingspeak there is no actually explanation on why they left in the first place.
    And why leaving F1 was warranted and leaving Indy was unwarranted from a “carbon neutrality” pov.
    Especially since F1 Hybrid engines are far more on the road of carbon neutrality than Indys intercombustion only engines.
    Yes, they gave the corporate argument that Indy is Honda America and a separate entity, but again that is semantics and an empty argument.

    So all in all the critics were completely right in being harsh to Honda again leaving the sport prematurely, as we have seen so many times from them.

  4. Taking a broader view, a significant portion of the top tier of automobile manufacturers would be/expected to be in F1 in 2026 in varying capacities. Whether the goals align or not, if Honda did not get onboard having invested in developing manpower and technical capabilities to build top notch engines with the Red Bull partnership, they would lose out.

  5. Sergey Martyn
    24th May 2023, 19:26

    The talented Honda engine engineers efforts are always eliminated by the knee-jerk decisions of Honda management to go in and out of F1 can be nicely described by the Spanish proverb – they move faster than a prostitute panties go up and down. Can’t recall the whole text, something like “como calzón de puta”

  6. Anyone remember what happened to BAR Racing at the end of 2008? Honda pulled out and basically handed the team to Ross Brawn for free? BrawnGP had to scrambled to secured Mercedes as their Engine Supplier. The car had a superior design compared to the field and Jenson Button went on to become the World Champion! I am pretty sure Honda would have won that championship with Ross Brawn. Talking about missing oppounities…….TWICE!!!

  7. But Red Bull were soon back on top (arguably aided by their 2021 budget cap overspend…

    You can buy a spare frontwing with the overspend… And considering the millions in Mercedes caused crash damage Red Bull spend less in car development then its main rivals.

    1. 2.3 million USD can buy you a lot more than just a front wing. It can buy you the services of quite a few extra engineers, for example.

      1. Not when, as the other comment stated, a huge part of those 2,3 mil went into repairs for the damage bottas and hamilton caused to red bull.

  8. “carbon neutrality.” Who is it exactly that doesn’t know that carbon is good, and necessary for plants to grow? Do we know that person’s name?

Comments are closed.