Sometimes a plan just comes together.
When McLaren opted to terminate its partnership with Honda late last year in favor of a switch to Renault, it opened the door for Toro Rosso to pick up the pieces. At the time, Red Bull claimed it was sitting pretty, able to get access to good data from both Renault and Honda, and therefore able to make an educated choice between either power unit for 2019 onward.
Renault tried to pull the rug out from under Red Bull’s feet by stating it wouldn’t continue with its supply deal beyond the end of this season after picking up McLaren, but Christian Horner insisted that option remained on the table. Realistically, though, it seemed Red Bull wanted Honda.
There’s a massive caveat, of course: the performance had to be good enough. But if it was, Red Bull would find itself with a works partnership once again, and its two teams enjoying the sole focus of a power unit manufacturer doing everything possible to recover from the McLaren debacle.
Before going any further, I still believe McLaren and Honda did the right thing in parting ways. The relationship was irreparable, and both needed a fresh start. It’s too easy to suggest this year’s improved showing from Honda could have benefitted McLaren, but that partnership worked in a different way and both sides needed something new to be able to understand their own failings.
For Honda, the new became Toro Rosso – in many ways the perfect home. Quite clearly it was a step towards a potential future Red Bull deal, but it was also an environment with much less pressure than the past three years had imposed. On top of that, it was a team that would allow Honda the space it needed to work, and therefore the opportunity to prove itself capable of delivering better than it had done since 2015.
When Honda did so, the decision was easy for Red Bull. With no title challenge in the V6 era and now playing second-fiddle to the Renault works team, what has it got to lose?
Honda brings significant financial involvement and the status of a works partnership that had effectively disappeared for Red Bull since Renault’s return to F1 as a constructor. Right now it brings a similar level of performance to Renault, and given its recent improvement rate with Toro Rosso, you could argue the potential is there for it to get the better of its French rival.
But then, that improvement rate is measured against a low benchmark over the three previous years, so the deal still represents a calculated risk for Red Bull. Yet it’s an even bigger one for Honda.
They may be two very different teams, but there are a lot of similarities between Red Bull and McLaren. You only have to look at some of the headlines both have generated in terms of pointing the finger at their engine suppliers for holding them back to get a feel for that. They both pride themselves on their aerodynamic departments – at least, McLaren did until this season – and both see anything other than victory as failure despite the enormous power of Mercedes and Ferrari.
Under Adrian Newey’s technical team, Red Bull has always pushed the limits of its packaging in search of aerodynamic performance, and it tends to have worked. The pace advantage it enjoys over Renault and McLaren this season is testament to that.
McLaren and Honda failed, but Red Bull needs to look as much at what Toro Rosso has done right this year as what McLaren did wrong in order to make its next partnership a success.
If it does so, and doesn’t demand too much of Honda in terms of packaging and layout, then Red Bull could be sitting pretty. But if it squeezes too hard and it backfires, it will only have itself to blame. The warning signs of the past are all there.
In the latter scenario, it’s not all that difficult to imagine Honda becoming the target of Red Bull criticism given the way the Renault partnership turned sour so quickly after the run of V8 success. But you sense the attitude from Horner’s team will be a little tempered given the impending change of power unit regulations in 2021. If Honda shows enough potential, there could be a longer-term future. If not, there’s a fresh start on the horizon.
That’s why the risks are worth it for both sides. Honda really needs a platform to challenge for victories after such a poor return with McLaren. Red Bull has already proven this season that it offers that platform, and there’s still the remainder of this year to prepare and develop further with Toro Rosso.
Don’t think that means there won’t be fireworks, though. With the announcement coming in the week of Renault’s home race there’s been a somewhat acrimonious divorce for the second season in a row, and Red Bull and Renault still have to try and be civil to each other for the rest of this campaign…