If you’ve just read the title, I could easily have added “again”, because Honda’s got history when it comes to leaving Formula 1.
Back in 2008, at the height of the global financial crisis, the Japanese manufacturer made the shock decision to leave the sport following the end of the season. The announcement came in early December, and there wasn’t much time to find a buyer. In the end, it was team principal Ross Brawn who played a major role in taking on the team, and we all know what happened with Brawn GP in 2009…
But of course, that was a Honda-designed car. It needed the Mercedes engine in the back because Honda completely pulled out of F1 at that point, but the chassis was a masterpiece and would likely have dominated the season with the planned investment as a full constructor.
Fast-forward 12 years, and Honda was announcing its departure from F1 once again. But on this occasion there was a little more of a winding-down, with Honda spending a final year working with Red Bull before stepping away.
Fast-forward again to the end of the Bahrain Grand Prix weekend, and questions are being asked about that decision. Specifically, whether Honda might come to regret the call to quit, and even consider reversing the decision.
The logic behind those questions were two-fold. First, Honda has finally delivered a power unit that looks capable of winning the championship in Red Bull’s chassis. And second, Yuki Tsunoda is one of the most exciting rookies to enter F1 in recent years.
I understand the questions to a certain degree, but they overlook exactly how Honda (and Tsunoda) got to where they are right now.
Let’s start with the power unit. Honda and Ferrari are in similar positions this year, because they introduced very different engines for 2021 while Renault, and to a lesser extent Mercedes, focused on combining major changes with the new regulations in 2022.
Ferrari had to do that out of necessity after an extremely poor season last year, but Honda was due to follow the other two manufacturers and delay its redesign until the new technical rules are introduced. That all changed when it became clear this year will be Honda’s last.
“The original plan was to implement this new structure PU this year in 2021,” Honda’s head of power unit development Yasuaki Asaki told RACER recently. “However, last spring, due to the global impact of COVID-19, Honda Motor as a company overall was in a situation where it had to start thinking about its profits.
“So, as Honda R&D we exist because of our parent company Honda Motor, and so we were in a situation where we had to cooperate, to ensure that they were able to make a profit. And so we had to decrease our development budget and make sure that we could contribute to the company making a profit. And as a result, there was a cancellation of the plan to implement the new structure PU in 2021.
“However, the thinking on this really changed when Honda management announced that we would be leaving the sport. I went to President Hachigo and said to him that we would really like to implement this this new structure PU for our last year in the sport. And he kindly accepted that request.
“There were some of our engineers who came to me directly and said we will not be able to do the development required in the time that we have. However once everyone was informed of the news from President Hachigo that we would be leaving Formula 1, I think they understood the reason why I came to them and asked for us to get this new PU ready in that time.
“So what I did was say to everyone that given that this is our last year, it’d be nice for us to be able to demonstrate what it is we’ve achieved as Honda engineers. And with that everyone’s expression changed instantly, and everyone got to work on doing what needed to be done.”
Far from having regrets over leaving the sport based on what it might achieve this year, Honda wanted to use 2021 to display its full potential after a number of difficult years.
With that came risk – highlighted by two of its four cars needing to change power unit components during the first race weekend – but given the additional warning compared to 2008, they were risks Honda was willing to take to try and bow out on the biggest high possible.
The fact that Tsunoda could give Honda even more reasons to enjoy its farewell year is just an added bonus. The 20-year-old is raw and mistakes are likely during the season, but the signs from Bahrain were enormously encouraging: he was brilliant on the brakes as he scythed his way into the points on debut.
But what is often not acknowledged about Tsunoda is the fact that he is not just a Honda driver. Yes, he came through the Honda Formula Dream Project, and was fast-tracked into Formula 3, but it was ahead of that debut F3 campaign that he was added to the Red Bull program. Alongside Juri Vips, Tsunoda was identified as a potential future F1 driver and followed a tried and tested Red Bull route by quickly moving up to Formula 2, where he raced for Carlin.
There’s an obvious connection for Honda, but this was not simply a case of the Japanese manufacturer getting its driver a seat in F1. Tsunoda earned it by impressing Red Bull within its own system, and has hit the ground running as a result of the support from both partners.
You could argue that the worst-case scenario for Honda is that Tsunoda makes a huge impact and is promoted to Red Bull in the coming years, providing the possibility of a Japanese driver winning the championship in what would have been a Honda-powered car.
While it’s quite a stretch to see that all coming to fruition (it would likely need Max Verstappen to leave the team even though it was capable of winning the title), even if it were to happen, that’s a good worst-case scenario to have.
Honda’s influence will still be felt beyond this season, with Red Bull running the same power unit technology next year – unlike the Brawn situation – and with Tsunoda likely to be in the sport for a number of years to come.
As a fan of F1 who works in the sport and collaborates with Honda at times, I’ll always view that F1 as the place to be. But there are wider considerations companies have to think about, and if they are to end their involvement then giving it one final big crack is the way to go.
Far from getting it wrong, winning on the way out would arguably be the perfect timing.