- Image credit: Red Bull

Honda Out! What’s Next For Red Bull and Honda?

With Honda’s shock announcement this morning that they will leave F1 after 2021, let’s look at the next steps for both Red Bull and Honda

2w ago

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Who Does Red Bull Turn To?

On the face of things, Red Bull’s situation does seem very bleak. Its understood that Red Bull knew of Honda’s plan to leave F1 after 2021 before signing the 2022 Concorde Agreement, which sees Red Bull commit to F1 until at least 2025, with Team Principle Christian Horner confirming Red Bull’s commitment in his reaction to the news. The announcement also affects Red Bull’s effective B-Team, Scuderia AlphaTauri, meaning both teams will be looking for new engine suppliers for 2022, but with only three suppliers left to choose from, who is Red Bull likely to turn to?

“As a signatory to F1's latest Concorde Agreement, Red Bull Racing remains committed to the sport in the long term and we look forward to embarking on a new era of innovation, development and success.”

Christian Horner

This isn’t the first time Red Bull have been in this situation, as after the very public falling out between the Red Bull and Renault parties in 2018, the Austrian outfit needed a new engine supplier. That time however, the Red Bull-Honda alliance was already in the planning, after Red Bull’s then-named Scuderia Toro Rosso team struck a partnership with Honda for the 2018 season, and had already seen success over the woeful McLaren-Honda alliance of the previous three seasons after a stunning fourth place finish for Pierre Gasly at just the second round of the season.

Mercedes undoubtedly has the best engine on the grid as of 2020. They have been the leading pioneers of the turbo-hybrid era of Formula 1 since its inception in 2014, and has been the key to their enormous success of 6 straight double championship wins (set to become 7 in 2020). However during this period, Red Bull has been one of Mercedes’ biggest rivals, with the German marque making it very clear in 2018 that they had no interest in supplying Red Bull. There is no reason why that would be any different 2 years on, especially with the question mark over Mercedes’ own future in F1.

In 2018, Ferrari really started to step up their game in the engine department, and for 2019 they seemed to have finally overcome Mercedes as the lead engine supplier on the grid. However after an investigation, the FIA found Ferrari’s engine to be illegal and a ‘settlement’ was struck between the FIA and Ferrari, one that to this day is still not known to the other teams or public. As a result, Ferrari’s 2020 engine has plummeted in performance, with all three Ferrari-powered teams of the works team, Haas and Alfa Romeo struggling, with Ferrari themselves down in a lowly P6 so far in the Constructors’ Championship. Even Ferrari’s Chairman John Elkann has stated that he doesn’t expect Ferrari to be in a winning position by 2022, so because of this it is highly unlikely Red Bull would even bat an eyelid towards Ferrari when it comes to deciding on a 2022 engine supplier. And even if Ferrari were competitive, they are Red Bull’s biggest rivals along with Mercedes of recent years, so would not want to supply the Austrian team for the same reason.

“Today we are laying the foundations for being competitive and returning to winning when the rules change in 2022 […] A long path awaits us.”

John Elkann

That leaves us with Renault. In the first part of the last decade, Red Bull and Renault were the force to be reckoned with, winning 4 straight double championships with Sebastian Vettel from 2010 to 2013. However, Renault struggled massively with the new-for-2014 turbo-hybrid regulations, and thus so did Red Bull, amassing just 12 victories from 2014 to 2018 with Renault compared to 41 victories from 2010 to 2013.

The falling out began to really take a toll in 2015 – Red Bull’s first winless F1 season since 2008, where they finished fourth in the championship at season’s end. After failing to secure a partnership with Mercedes, Ferrari or Honda, the team ended up running rebadged Renault engines for the remainder of their partnership, with the power unit being branded as TAG Heuer power units. While undoubtedly neither party will want to be partnered again, with Christian Horner and Renault Team Principle Cyril Abiteboul’s rivalry being magnified in Netflix’s Drive to Survive series, it may be Red Bull’s only viable option.

Horner and Abiteboul go head-to-head on the grid // Image credit: Formula 1

Horner and Abiteboul go head-to-head on the grid // Image credit: Formula 1

The situation around a potential Red Bull-Renault reunion is slightly different to when they broke up. From 2021, the Renault F1 Team will become the Alpine F1 Team, as parent company Renault looks to increase the profile of the relaunched sportscar company, and follows Alpines step up into the top class of endurance racing in the World Endurance Championship with a grandfathered Rebellion LMP1 car. Commercially, Red Bull beating Alpine in F1 would be less of an impact than Red Bull beating Renault, so from Renault’s perspective this is a positive, and there is always the option to rebadge the Renault/Alpine engine like in 2016. There is also a regulation in place that the supplier who supplies the lowest number of teams, in this case Renault, will be forced to supply a team if needed. However, Abiteboul will remain in charge at the helm of Alpine, so it may boil down to whether or not Abiteboul and Horner can put aside their personal quarrels.

Are there any other options outside of the current 2022 engine suppliers? Well, Red Bull have a strong relationship with the VW Group. VW has kept a close eye on F1 for several years now, with rumours of Lamborghini, Audi, Porsche or even VW themselves all entering F1 coming and going. With only 18 months until the 2022 seasons gets underway, it would be almost impossible for a brand new supplier to build and engine in time and have it even remotely competitive (see Honda in 2015), however even with the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic the VW Group wouldn’t by shy of money to do it with, and no doubt Red Bull would help out as well.

Another option is that Red Bull could build an engine inhouse. This would cure Red Bull’s constant headache of not being a pure factory team, having always needing to rely on third party engines. Having their own engines means they would have full control over developments and upgrades, but also means they only have themselves to blame if it goes wrong.

“But where would the money come from?” I hear you ask (possibly). There is talk of the Red Bull Driver Programme being shut down if Red Bull hire a driver from outside their programme. Why would they do this and who would that driver be? Sergio Perez’s and Nico Hulkenberg’s names have been thrown about for a potential Red Bull drive in 2021 if Alex Albon is dropped, as both current AlphaTauri drivers are unlikely to be repromoted to Red Bull due to their checkered past with the senior team. Now with Honda leaving, and a clause understood to be in Max Verstappen’s contract that allows him to leave if Honda leave, Red Bull may even be looking for two drivers for 2021. Red Bull have invested so much money into the Driver Programme – if the programme was to be shut down, redirecting that investment into building an engine for 2022 could certainly be an option.

In short, I feel the most likely option will be for a rebranded Renault engine, as the Renault engines aren’t anywhere near as bad as they used to be, but being 2020 honestly anything could happen still.

What’s Next For Honda?

In the Tokyo press conference this morning, Honda stated that ‘carbon neutrality by 2050’ and the cost to build a Formula 1 engine being the ‘biggest issue’ were the main reasons behind the Japanese marque’s fourth F1 exit.

“Honda needs to funnel its corporate resources in research and development into the areas of future power unit and energy technologies, including fuel cell vehicle (FCV) and battery EV (BEV) technologies, which will be the core of carbon-free technologies.”

Honda's statement

The fact part of Honda’s reason to quit F1 is due to wanting to focus on reducing their carbon footprint and pushing forward with the development of alternative fuels is a massive wakeup call for Formula 1. It is well known that F1’s carbon footprint is big, and FOM and the FIA have been working to reduce that as much as possible. The turbo-hybrid regulations were brought in to not just help reduce F1’s carbon footprint, but also to make F1 more attractive to manufacturers as the move away from fossil fuels starts to ramp up. Honda leaving has been the absolute opposite of what F1 and the FIA wanted with this, and will certainly put pressure on the FIA over what they do with the 2025/’26 engine regulation change.

Honda have also said they plan to remain in motorsport, meaning their IndyCar programme is not in jeopardy. Considering the reasons behind their F1 exit, a move to Formula E would seem apt. There, Honda would take on fellow Japanese manufacturer Nissan, the current representative of the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance in Formula E, as well as the German giants of Mercedes, Porsche, Audi and BMW, Citroen’s sub-marque DS, and British manufacturer Jaguar, and with Formula E’s intention of fast-charging capabilities by Season 9 (2023) it would seem perfect destination for Honda. However, Honda’s CEO Takahiro Hachigo has said they do not plan on entering Formula E, saying that ‘carbon neutrality by 2050’ is their main aim at the moment.

To be honest, Hachigo’s statement is very confusing to me, as he goes on to say that he wants to ‘promote other motorsports’ and ‘boost enthusiasm across Japan for the different kinds of motorsports as well in those other venues’. Considering Formula E has long targeted an increase presence in Japan with both more Japanese teams and a race in the country, it is surprising to me that Hachigo has said this, yet intends not to enter Formula E.

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