December 7, 2021

Honda’s exit: What now for Red Bull and F1?

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Assessing the impact of Honda’s decision to withdraw from F1 at the end of the 2021 season on Red Bull and the sport at large, with the help of the Sky F1 pundits

Last Updated: 02/10/20 9:34pm

What’s the impact of Honda’s F1 exit?

After a rollercoaster spell back in the sport, Honda’s fourth different stint on the grid will end when next season concludes after the Japanese car giant announced on Friday that it had decided to shift the focus and resource it currently places on F1 to other areas of its business.

The news leaves Red Bull’s two teams, AlphaTauri and Red Bull themselves, looking for new engine suppliers for 2022 having each won races and claimed podium finishes with Honda over the past 18 months.

David Croft: “It’s a shame that Honda are pulling out again. I say ‘again’ because Honda have come in and out of F1 before and I hope they do come back in again sometime.

“Over the last couple of years it has been really pleasing to see Honda, together with Red Bull, show what they can do in the engine department after a fairly disastrous time with McLaren, which I don’t think was all their doing.

“It was great to see that since they have paired up with the Red Bull teams – first with Toro Rosso in 2018 and then the senior team too from last year – that Honda have again produced good race-winning engines. They’ll be able to leave with their heads held high.

“But the story now turns very quickly onto where Red Bull now go from here and how this news impacts Formula 1 in the future.”

2:06
Honda will leave F1 at the end of the 2021 season, but why, and what next for Red Bull? Sky Sports’ Craig Slater explains

Honda will leave F1 at the end of the 2021 season, but why, and what next for Red Bull? Sky Sports’ Craig Slater explains

What does it mean for F1?

Whereas 12 years ago the Japanese car giant cited the global recession as the reason for ending its previous stint in F1, this time Honda said it was leaving to shift resources to zero-emission technology including fuel cells and batteries as part of the company’s quest to be carbon-neutral by 2050.

Those reasons and the impending loss of a major name from F1 raise questions about the future direction of the sport’s engine regulations, with the next change currently planned for 2026. F1 currently runs 1.6-litre V6 turbo-powered engines with advanced energy recovery systems, which deliver thermal efficiency of over 50 per cent.

Martin Brundle: “There is no way you can paint a positive picture on the Honda news except for the fact that it will really focus minds on the new power unit and how critical it is to get that right.

“The big global car groups like Mercedes and BMW have currently got to offer petrol, diesel, hybrid and electric cars, while they’ll also be investing in fuel-cell technology. That’s five completely different power sources.

“Formula 1 finds itself in a conundrum in terms of that relevance. As I’ve said on Sky F1 and in my columns in the past, I’ve always felt that these current V6 hybrid engines were a mistake because they’re too heavy, too expensive and too complex. I know Formula 1 are currently working on the new 2026 engine and the relevance and importance of that will have just taken a great big step forward with this announcement.

“You can’t imagine any other manufacturers wanting to join in with a super-expensive hybrid F1 engine now, it’s not relevant to their future business models.

“So it’s now about what F1 does next in terms of creating an exciting power unit for the show and the fans. We all miss the V8s and the V10s and Mick Schumacher driving Michael’s 2004 car at Mugello the other week just reminded us how evocative and exciting the engines of that era were. For me, Formula 1 is entertainment first and foremost and we’ve got to have a power unit that entertains and excites.”

Ted Kravitz: “Honda’s reasoning should cause Formula 1 and incoming president and CEO Stefano Domenicali some concern.

“If everyone is going electric, then it’s a pointer that despite F1’s hybrid engines doing great on fuel efficiency they’re missing the point, because there isn’t going to be any fuel in terms of fossil fuels in the future and it’s all going to be electric. Whether or not that’s the best way to go is beside the point: if the manufacturers have decided that they aren’t going to use any fossil fuels then that’s the way it’s going.

“It’s the beginning of a conceptual quandary for Formula 1. They’ve got to know whether they have backed the right horse in terms of hybrid engines. Or whether they should go back to full combustion engines that make an amazing noise in the name of entertainment. Formula E have got the electric engine well developed, so there’s no point Formula 1 going down that route.

“According to everything Domenicali has said in the past, he believes Formula 1 is entertainment. It’s sport and it’s about seeing the best drivers drive against each other. Thereby the method in which they drive against each other is secondary to the entertainment of them driving against each other.

“Whether he continues to think that when he’s actually in charge of the sport remains to be seen, but those are the indications he’s made up to now.”

Honda’s decision means that, as it stands, F1 will again have just three engine manufacturers in the 2022 season – Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault – to power 10 teams. So what needs to happen next to create a wider pool of manufacturers?

Kravitz: “The current engines are so complicated and many people in the past have called them ridiculously and needlessly expensive. Those barriers have precluded an independent engine manufacturer being able to develop their own without someone just giving them half a billion pounds to get it done.

“So do you kill two birds with one stone to make it both cheaper and viable for independents to come back in and go back to normally-aspirated V8s or V10s? To do that for 2026 would mean that there could be independents back out there.”

Croft: “To avoid this situation in future whereby you haven’t really got enough engine manufacturers on the grid, the sport itself could look at introducing a standard Internal Combustion Engine but with an ability for engine manufacturers or independent firms to develop the Energy Recovery System.

“Manufacturers would still be able to invest in that hybrid technology. With the development that’s going into looking at alternative and sustainable fuels for the future as part of a greener Formula 1, is the opportunity also there for F1 to look at a single engine supply? It already has a single tyre supplier and making further moves into single-standardised parts.”

Brundle: “The latest engines are incredibly impressive pieces of equipment and design. But when you start discussing thermal efficiency you can almost hear fans groaning about it when you talk about it on the television. They’re not tuning in for thermal efficiency numbers, they’re tuning in to see gladiators fighting wheel-to-wheel. Formula 1 has got to remember that.

“There is a balance between the sport and the business of what we do.

“We’ve definitely got to get back to a situation where there can be third-party suppliers and you’re not just relying on a board of people that you’ll never meet making fundamental decisions that impact on Formula 1.”

What does it mean for Red Bull?

As the former world champions acknowledged themselves in their statement reacting to the news of Honda’s withdrawal plan, Red Bull certainly “have been here before”.

Finding a long-term path out of a loveless marriage with former suppliers Renault ultimately led them to Honda but options for Red Bull appear even more limited two years on. The team have said they will take their time to “further evaluate and find the most competitive power unit solution for 2022 and beyond”, but where might that lead them?

Brundle: “No new manufacturer can get up and running with one of these V6 hybrids and dream of matching the three that are in there already with all the experience they’ve got, particularly when you know there’s a new engine coming for 2026 anyway. In power unit development terms, that’s not actually very far away. You’d want a two or three-year lead time to get ready for that.

“So, for 2022, it will be a question of one of the three existing manufacturers making some more power units available for Red Bull. But that’s quite a ramp-up for someone, which is why it’s good for Red Bull that this isn’t happening next year. You don’t just make more power units for customers; you need all of the resource to refurbish them and run them at the track. That’s a lot of people.

“I don’t quite see how Mercedes would work. Going back to Ferrari or Renault? It might suit Renault. They are losing McLaren at the end of this year, so they are going to be on an island by themselves, but so much went on last time between them.”

Croft: “I know that the regulations would force Renault to supply Red Bull engines if necessary as the manufacturer with the fewest customers, but I don’t think it’s a given that we will see the two parties reunited. There was a lot of bad feeling before and if there are other options available to Red Bull you could see them take one.

“Could they develop their own engine? That’s very costly but where are engines out there that they could possibly use? Porsche had an F1 engine ready to go but they pulled the plug on that. Honda will have an engine at the end of 2021 that would be lying dormant, so could Red Bull take on the reins with that?

“Building engines for Formula 1 is a very expensive business – but that’s from scratch. What if you had the ability to take over that Honda project and carry on with it? Extra dispensation is given within the new F1 cost cap, which begins next year, for constructors which also manufacturer their own engines. You could spread the cost out by supplying to other teams. It’s costly but not as costly as starting from scratch, so I wonder if that’s an option for the future.”

Kravitz: “While the most obvious solution is for Honda to sell their engine and their IP to some kind of independent engine manufacturer and for it to carry on with a rebadged Honda engine, I wouldn’t count out the Mercedes link-up.

“Let’s just remember back to 2015/16 when Red Bull were very close to having a Mercedes engine in a deal that was brokered by Niki Lauda and vetoed by Toto Wolff. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then and only Toto will know whether he felt he was wrong in that instance and in retrospect Niki was right and they should have given Red Bull an engine.

“Will they go cap in hand back to Renault? You might think that Cyril Abiteboul would laugh Christian Horner out of his office but new CEO Luca de Meo, who is personally very involved in the Formula 1 project now, might take a view that goes above the animosity of the two in recent years. But we’ll have to see on that.

“Would Red Bull want a Ferrari power unit? Well, it is for 2022, and by then you’d have to think that Ferrari should have got back to a stronger position. So it’s not impossible, but I think the most likely outcome is a rebadged version of what they’ve got at the moment.”

And what does it mean for Max Verstappen?

The news of Honda’s departure and the uncertainty it creates around Red Bull’s future engine supply will inevitably turn focus to Max Verstappen’s long-term future at the team.

Red Bull’s star driver signed up to a new deal last winter to 2023, and appears in the form of his career so far this season, but F1 driver contracts are often rather more complex than meets the eye.

Brundle: “This will unquestionably impact on Max Verstappen’s freedom to look around sooner or later I would have thought, if there is no works motor.”

Kravitz: “Who can know apart from Verstappen whether Honda’s exit makes him less minded to stay with Red Bull, but it can’t help.

“Verstappen’s only just 23, he’s got plenty of time left in F1, but it will be a concern for him. Who knows what kind of escape clauses he’s got in his contract? But, even if there are some, what would that mean? Going to Mercedes? It doesn’t fit for the moment at least with Bottas signing up again and Hamilton expected to do likewise.”