Pierre Gasly of Toro Rosso-Honda with an engine problem, Yas Marina, 2018

‘It doesn’t matter if we start last’: How Red Bull’s junior team aided Honda’s leap forward

Formula 1

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AlphaTauri team principal Franz Tost has explained the role he played in pushing for Red Bull’s junior outfit to be a powertrain development ground to benefit the senior outfit – though it came at the expense of reliability.

His team began using Honda power units that year. The Japanese manufacturer had endured three torrid seasons supplying McLaren from 2015 to ‘17, and seen a deal to supply Sauber fall through.

Tost’s team, known at the time as Toro Rosso, switched from Renault to Honda engines in 2018. It worked with the Japanese manufacturer to develop the package Red Bull began using the following year. It proved successful and Red Bull driver Max Verstappen went on to win the 2021 title with Honda power.

Before agreeing the deal for Toro Rosso to use Honda engines in 2018, Tost said he “simply could not believe that Honda is not able to build a power unit which can win in F1.”

Franz Tost, AlphaTauri, Bahrain International Circuit, 2023
Tost told Honda: “It doesn’t matter if we start at the back”
The manufacturer had returned to F1 in 2015. “From 2014 onwards, I always kept in contact with Honda,” Tost explained in a video published by Honda. “Of course they had a difficult time together with McLaren, but I was 100% convinced that with a good co-operation you can win with Honda.

“When we decided 2017 to change to Honda, I know that many people in the paddock didn’t believe this decision. They said personally to me: ‘How can you decide to work together with this company? This will bring your team into big difficulties.’ And I just said to them ‘please, ask me in five years, then we will see what’s going on’. And we had from 2017 onwards fantastic co-operation with Honda.

“We had a very open business relationship and on the technical side there was a real, really cooperative collaboration between Honda and between Toro Rosso in those days. Many times engineers came here to Japan, to Sakura, the other way round as well. Honda engineers came to Faenza. And this good cooperation, and this good communication between both parties ended in winning the championship and winning races.”

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Tost promised Honda “in those days that – not with Toro Rosso but with Red Bull Racing – they will win races and maybe also the championship.” Red Bull clinched their second consecutive constructors’ title last weekend and Verstappen is poised to win the drivers’ title for the third year in a row in the sprint race ahead of next week’s Qatar Grand Prix.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Red Bull Ring, 2019
Verstappen delivered Red Bull’s first win with Honda
Tost said that success “is what I expected from Honda.” His team played a crucial role in Red Bull’s progress to getting its hands on a competitive engine after year of frustration with Renault.

“Reliability was one story, but the performance another one,” said Tost. “And Honda during the winter months made a big step forward already.

“But we knew if they want to win the races and the world championship with Red Bull Racing we have to develop the power unit all over the year. And this was decisive. That meant we had a reasonably good basis from the reliability side, but of course they had to improve the performance.”

Tost therefore urged Yasuaki Asaki, Honda’s head of power unit development, to accelerate their development programme throughout 2018, even if it meant replacing engines more frequently and incurred grid penalties.

“I remember it was Asaki-san, I said to him ‘please bring to every race a new specification, a new upgrade, doesn’t matter if we have to start from the back’. And this he did.

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“We nearly got to every race a new upgrade, which meant we had to start from the back, but this was calculated. And this development speed during 2018 made it possible to have such a good power unit then provided to the teams, to Red Bull Racing and to Scuderia Toro Rosso in 2019 and 2020.”

Red Bull, Suzuka, 2023
Red Bull have dominated this year’s world championship
Red Bull duly switched to Honda engines the following year, and delivered their first win in their ninth start together.

Toro Rosso’s work with Honda “was the basis, because it was very clear that they have to improve the performance and the engineers in Sakura did really a very, very good job,” said Tost. “Not so much at the beginning of 2018, but for sure at the end of 2018, and especially then 2019 when they recognised how correct and important our decision was to join Honda.”

Across 2018 to 2020 (totalling 59 races) there were 17 instances of Honda-powered drivers at Red Bull and Toro Rosso/AlphaTauri being sent to the back of the grid for using additional power unit elements, with nine of those being in 2018 when Toro Rosso was alone in using Honda engines.

“Red Bull observed the development steps in detail,” said Tost. “Therefore it was important to develop the engine and to come up with a better performance from race to race.

“This was at the end the decision differentiator for Red Bull Racing to go with Honda. Because they saw, yes, Honda develops the power unit in the best possible way, and this is a partner which we can trust and which we can work together.”

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Author information

Ida Wood
Often found in junior single-seater paddocks around Europe doing journalism and television commentary, or dabbling in teaching photography back in the UK. Currently based...

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43 comments on “‘It doesn’t matter if we start last’: How Red Bull’s junior team aided Honda’s leap forward”

  1. It was one year of pain, but both teams greatly benefited from it, bringing a race win to Tost as well as the success for RBR. McLaren must have been looking on in pain ever since, but I’m sure they learned from their own errors and mistakes in that relationship as well.

    It’s going to be interesting to see how Aston Martin and Honda get on from 2026 onwards, if they can replicate the Red Bull successes with Honda or will go down the McLaren route.

  2. Must be nice to have 60+ days of real world testing because the FIA allows one team to run four cars. Compared to these shenanigans, the budget cap overspend is just a small math problem.

    This relates nicely to the article two days ago, about Red Bull not getting due credit for their wins. With a full time test team operating on the side, and politicised engine regulations that explicitly aim to ensure equivalent performances; it’s not a great story.

    1. Must be nice to have 60+ days of real world testing because the FIA allows one team to run four cars. Compared to these shenanigans, the budget cap overspend is just a small math problem.

      Never expected to hear from you that Mercedes has a massive advantage by supplying four teams :p

      1. Beat me to it….2 x Mercedes cars, 2 x Mclaren cars, 2 x Aston Martin cars, 2 x Williams cars all, all running Merc engines.

        But of course, it’s RBR that are “cheating” by having 4 cars (and the period that the story is about, there were only 2 cars)

      2. Exactly! Mercedes supplies them. Mercedes didn’t have engines run in their supply teams for a year so they could be refined and made reliable, whilst themselves not yet using said engine!

        The fact that people really need simple things spelled out for them. Gosh…

        1. No they didn’t do that, but they literally could do that. But the point isn’t if they could or couldn’t do that, the point is if we’re on Red Bull’s case for running engines in 4 cars, then we should be on Mercedes’ and Ferrari’s case for running them in 8 and 6 cars respectively. Let’s not talk about which teams and drivers Wolff is actually invested in, half the grid is attached to him in one way or another. Whether it’s Williams, or someone like Ocon. Or, when we’re talking about Ferrari, half of Haas’ technical staff is Ferrari staff, and then there’s the little thing of Haas helping Ferrari out with their windtunnel time for a while there before their debut. There were also quite a few rumblings a few years ago that Sauber were using their Friday’s testing Ferrari engine modes, so Ferrari could conserve theirs by running them in lower settings.

          Pretending Red Bull is the only team to have any kind of ties up and down the grid is just silly. If you want to protest that, there’s a whole lot more protesting that needs to be done with a whole set of different teams and people.

          1. You completely and totally missed my point.

            Case in point.

          2. No they didn’t do that, but they literally could do that

            Could not, actually.

            The regulations require the engine supplier to supply the same engine spec and also the same engine map data. All teams have an identical engine spec and know the same tech data.
            McLaren actually choose to design and use their own gearbox.

            RBR were not using the same engine supplier, and so they avoided any limitation.

        2. The fact that people really need simple things spelled out for them.

          Therefore, expecting this would be needed for you/others, I decided to spell it out in my post below :p

      3. Mercedes supplied those teams so said teams could use the PUs to get the best results in the championship, without Mercedes having any meaningful degree of influence over how their customers did so.

        Conversely, Red Bull used their two extra cars as a test platform without any interest in the competitive outcome, and with full control over their approach to the season and the events.

        There are certainly also problems with the way engine customers tend to vote with their supplier, and Wolff certainly has too many stakes in too many teams, drivers., etc. But that is a seperate matter.

        1. n Sunday evening at Imola Russell insisted “the move was totally on”. But speaking to Channel 4 ahead of this weekend’s race he said he accepted Wolff’s view that he should have given more room to a Mercedes.

          “There was a lot of things I have taken away from it,” he said. “I think firstly as a racing driver one of the rules is that you should never crash with a team mate and for me personally obviously Valtteri is a in a different car but I am a Mercedes-backed driver, I am in the position because of Mercedes.

          “Lewis and Valtteri are team mates to me of sorts. And I think that is one thing that didn’t go through my mind in the heat of the moment.”

          1. A nice example indeed, though not as egregious as Wolff giving team orders to Ocon in Monaco when the latter was driving a Mercedes powered Force India (and was, if I recall correctly, also still affiliated with Mercedes personally).

            It’s high time to ensure all teams are real independent outfits.

          1. You do realise that’s not cheating right? Being in contact regarding the plans is something others could have done too. If they didn’t actually do it because these are actually claims. By Bernie no less. In the same article it says Renault were pushing for these regs I suppose that means they cheated too. And did a bad job of it?

    2. The budget cap was indeed a small math problem. For the other part I feel comments above have already pointed out there is hardly a difference with Mercedes other that Mercedes has even more data on PU given the larger amount out there. I would like to add that Mercedes also had a head start advantage going into the V6 Hybrid period. So in terms of fairness I think we can conclude it swings both ways and differs over time. F1 being totally fair is simply not realistic. It has never been.

  3. This is perhaps the best argument against junior teams, as this is something a customer team can not do. TR/AT/?? is deliberately sacrificing good results to help another team.
    I’d advise the other teams to welcome new teams to the grid and find out if there is a possibility of a construction like this, I think there are no grounds to ban a second team from the grid if it is already there.

    1. I’d advise the other teams to welcome new teams to the grid and find out if there is a possibility of a construction like this

      There was (is) one existing F1 team and engine manufacturer supporting Andretti’s entry….

      And looking back a handful of years – early on in the hybrid era, the manufacturer teams were effectively running their customers in this manner.

    2. any constructor could go to any engine manufacturer and toss them some money to get the same engine that AT decided to take a yearlong dump to get up to speed. HAAS, Williams, Sauber, Aston Martin. I’m sure McLaren weren’t keen to get another Honda PU so soon after their messy break, but ANY other customer team could have gone and done a contract with Honda, they still can, and they would reap the same benefit as every other Honda team has since the sacrifice AT made.

  4. It’s surprising to see Tost say this, he usually plays the “we aren’t a junior team, we’re a sister team” card.
    Being so open about sacrificing your teams competitiveness for the sake of another’s surely goes against the spirit of F1, if there is much of an argument any more about the “DNA” of F1, this isn’t it.
    Or is it?… Making every advantage you can to succeed no matter the cost is a part of F1 I really find fascinating, and the results in this case speak for themselves in that Red Bull haven’t finished lower than 3rd for ~75% of their existence.

    1. Being so open about sacrificing your teams competitiveness for the sake of another’s surely goes against the spirit of F1, if there is much of an argument any more about the “DNA” of F1, this isn’t it.

      I’m in the ‘or is it’ camp (also because you cannot police it).
      Furthermore, I also read this as STR/AT being able play the long game by testing and developing the new PU, and then benefit themselves from the results (race win).
      Other teams can do the same, but Mercedes and Ferrari are committed to their own PU in their own car, thus they will have to do the testing also on their own cars (plus their customer cars).
      Mercedes team is free though to switch to Renault PU’s one year and do the testing of the Mercedes PY on the other three teams (if further development were allowed).

      And the PU developing in the junior/development/sister/customer/whatever team seems much fairer than only (ab)using such team to develop your up and coming driver (Leclerc, Russell, but also Verstappen). The driver will be taken away from the other team when good enough, whereas the PU is there to stay for both teams to enjoy.

    2. I don’t know when “he plays this card” but back in those days they were the junior team, it was 2020 when they changed course: https://www.formula1.com/en/latest/article.analysis-what-does-alphatauris-switch-from-red-bulls-junior-to-sister-team.3Q2JmXhmJirgZc7AGRsF9e.html

    3. The story of how Honda became competitive with Toro Rosso, and not McLaren, is IMO by far the biggest failure in McLaren’s recent history.
      It speaks volumes to how rigid and anti-innovative Mclaren’s culture was, atleast back then.

      McLaren should have been able to do what Toro Rosso did and just write off a season or two strictly as testing seasons, in order to give the new engine manufacturer room to grow. Just bring engine updates to every single race, and see what makes them work in the real world, but I suppose hearing your star driver shout “GP2 Engine!!” in the world feed makes such sacrifices rather unrealistic…

      I don’t think this type of development is completely antithetical to the spirit of F1. With testing being so limited, teams looking to become more competitive will have to sacrifice a season or two of real racing, and I would expect top teams to even find a way to collaborate with another team, so that they don’t have to make the entire sacrifice themselves.

      1. well, you have to remember the token system that locked them in a bad operating window to begin with and they were unable to bring meaningful updates to the PU. so we can’t blame it all on McLaren, a lot of blame has to sit on whoever agreed to the silly token plan for PU upgrades.

    4. Maybe you noticed but he is talking about 2017 – and during that time they were the junior team.
      The sister team is something from last year or the year therefore (i forgot)

      Still this was the right way Franz did to get Honda produce mighty engines what they are now. Audi is going to have the same problems as Honda in the begining.

    5. It’s surprising to see Tost say this, he usually plays the “we aren’t a junior team, we’re a sister team” card.

      He’s in a position where he can be totally honest, and should Marko et al. make nasty noises, he can point out that come Christmas he won’t be there.
      I’m sure that it would entertain everyone if he got pushed out of the door early because he was honest.

  5. RBR is getting bashed a lot on this site, especially lately, but I think that it is a big credit to them that they were able to turn around the seemingly hopeless Honda engine project, with their professionalism and willingness to do what it takes. Especially nice for the Honda engineers who can’t have had a good time at first. Credit goes to them as well, because we saw with Renault that RBR can’t do anything if the engine supplier isn’t able to step up to their high demands.

    It’s also good for F1 in general that Honda did get a good return on investment in the end and didn’t get to leave with their tail between their legs.

    1. Or yknow… the fact that the honda hybrid engine train was 4-5 years old at that point and not turning it round would be a shocking feat.

      Or yknow the he fact that as we now know the had a team devoted to this task in 2018

      Or yknow the fact that the engines were staring to converge and the taken system iirc had significantly slowed down..

    2. Would have deserved credit if they took on honda first, themselves turned it around. But we saw how that worked with Reno and their patience running thin being a top team. Probably one reason it was a struggle with McLaren.

    3. Also it’s confusing actually your mention of giving them credit and reasons for so. When alpha tauri did most if the work and in fact tost even said honda had made improvements over the winter. Into 2018

  6. Oh great! Another example of redbulls second team being used to benefit them! 2nd team, 2nd team principle, 2nd driver, 3rd driver, 4th driver………

  7. Ok now. Calling on Ferrari to and mercedes to field their own second teams. Have them tmtest and improve new earo philosophies for a year. Even if they have to start last. Heck why not just do a Toyota to allow for unlimited testing.

  8. Surely these kind of actions go against the spirit of the rules and at least against the spirit of the budget cap rules. I’m not sure if the current rules allow these kind of actions, but they shouldn’t: one team sacrificing its own performance in order to benefit another team.

    (And no, I am not suggesting that Red Bull or Alpha Tauri broke any rules. In any case, this was before the budget cap rules. But if this loop hole still exists, it should be fixed. Otherwise Ferrari and Mercedes could buy their own sister teams and bypass budget rules.)

    1. Surely these kind of actions go against the spirit of the rules and at least against the spirit of the budget cap rules.

      I’m sure Hans Christian could spin you a tale or two, but at the end of the day he’d, possibly, admit that the “maverick team” he runs do really hold with this “spirit of the rules” thing.
      If it doesn’t say in black and white that something is not allowed, then they will do it, until the rules say it’s not allowed.

  9. It’s quite clear now why as RB proved their superiority AT went down as a lead balloon. ‘Sharing knowledge’ and using a second team as a test team is a way to play the budget cap. No comparison with Merc and Ferrari as they can’t tell the supplied team to use their resources to help them.

  10. This would actually be a great story if Red Bull were the ones who “picked up” Honda after McLaren so graciously dropped them, but no, it was actually their B-team.

    1. To be fair though, after such a sublime performance by honda, they didn’t deserve more than a backmarker team gambling on them and it’s what they got, then once the engine improved significantly they became worthy of a top team.

  11. That’s why i hate this team. It’s a supporting act. Their results have absolutely zero significance to their future, they can be scoreless for years, it doesn’t matter because Red Bull will still have an use for them and will keep funding the structure.

    Using it to develop engines for them to use in the future, to evaluate if drivers are good enough already, if the drivers are good enough again, to give a seat to some driver to satisfy the engine supplier, to just fill a gap and dispose them when they’re not needed.

    It’s a lab where they experiment their stuff and little else than that, not to talk about the strange stuff that happens every once in a while.

    1. Not as if things like this never happened before Red Bull got Alpha Tauri as a full on B team.

      Teams would often loan younger drivers or test drivers to smaller teams in order to evaluate them in race conditions. Especially back when a big team bringing in a younger/inexperienced driver wasn’t something that happened as often as it does now because back then big teams who were going to be fighting for wins/championships were only interested in a known quantity.

      And bigger teams would also often get data from engine suppliers (Or tire suppliers, brake suppliers etc..) that were supplying smaller teams.

      Williams were talking to and getting data from Honda while they were still supplying the Spirit team for instance and it was that data which led to Williams taking the Honda engines in 1985. And Benetton were evaluating the Renault engines in 1994 with Schumacher even testing a Ligier to bring back data to help Benetton prepare for the switch to Renault engines in 1995.

    2. How about Sauber being a Ferrari customer, and up until mid ’00s, Ferrari notoriously only providing their customers engines that have, additional hardware, designed to limit engine performance of the customer team?

      How significant would you say Sauber’s result/presence on the grid was back in those days?

      Today we have explicit rules that make such bad engine deals impossible, but I would fully expect that a customer team does not get 100% engine performance from a software point of view.

      1. Still better than this, for sure.
        They at least could choose some their drivers.

        Or do you think Pedro Diniz was imposed by Ferrari?

        And the closer partnership with Ferrari ended and theyre still competing. This AT team will fould the second after Red Bull decides to pull the plug.

  12. Not a GP2 engine anymore

  13. Spare a thought for Mclaren.

  14. Red Bull needs to bring back this color scheme.

    Toro Rosso, in this color scheme, was by far the prettiest car on the grid.

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