Formula One current engine supplier to Red Bull Racing and Alpha Tauri, Honda will quit the sport at the end of the 2021 F1 season. This will leave the teams with no engine supplier for the 2022 season if the two teams do not act quickly before the start of the 2022 season. Honda had previously returned to Formula One championship with McLaren in 2015, a partnership that turned out to be a disaster as their package performed horribly below expectations. The engine manufacturer ultimately switched its attention to the then Toro Rosso team in 2018 and added Red Bull Racing a year later. The partnership seemed to be in good spirits as Red Bull Racing clinched second place in the 2019 constructors championship.
Recent Honda performance
In the 2019 Formula One season, the Honda partnership with Red Bull Racing team propelled Dutch youngster Max Verstappen to four race wins. The season saw Verstappen in a better position in challenging Mercedes AMG Petronas and Scuderia Ferrari teams at the top of the race grid. It is not surprising that the Honda power continued success into the 2020 Formula One season again with Verstappen bagging in another race win so far at the F1 70th anniversary in Silverstone. Had it not been a couple of DNF’s (did not finish) the Dutch driver remains a seasonal threat to both Mercedes drivers, Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas. Unexpectedly and against all odds, Pierre Gasly of Alpha Tauri team which is also powered by Honda, won the Italian Grand Prix in Monza in early September 2020.
Why is Honda leaving F1?
The news announced by Honda that they will quit Formula One as engine supplier at the end of 2021 F1 season came as a surprise around the F1 paddocks. The Japanese engine manufacturer wants to allocate its resources elsewhere as part of a wider focus on carbon neutrality. The move follows a transformation within the automotive industry to move away from internal combustion engines to future carbon neutral power units and energy technologies including fuel-cell vehicles and battery technologies. Road car manufacturers are shifting their focus to electrification as a respond to the challenge of the climate crisis and legislative restrictions on internal combustion engines in many countries. The decision to leave Formula One will leave the sport with only three power unit suppliers – Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault. Under the current F1 regulations, Renault would be obliged to supply Red Bull and AlphaTauri with engines as they currently have the fewest customers.
What it means to Red Bull Racing
F1 regulations dictate that engine manufacturers must supply up to three teams in the championship. Mercedes is already supplying power units to three teams including their works team – McLaren, Racing Point and Williams. Ferrari supply engines to Haas and Alfa Romeo including Maranello based works team. Renault which has the least number of customers may look at the idea of re-igniting the partnership with Red Bull which saw the pair winning four consecutive world titles during the 2010 – 2016 period. It remains to be seen whether that partnership could be revisited as Red Bull once went out publicly criticizing Renault for their under performing engines. Ferrari engines are another option but unless they turnaround their performance the SF1000 has been far from challenging the top spots on the grid. There is a window mid-way through the season for engine manufacturers to announce to the FIA which teams they intend to supply. So Red Bull atleast have some breathing space to look around, negotiate with current power unit manufacturers or bring a new supplier altogether.
What is the future of F1 car engines?
Formula One is currently running the 1.6 liter turbo hybrid engines until the mid 2020s where the regulations would require a new formula. The F1 engine has a high energy conversion (efficiency) rate as compared to a normal road car – its rate of converting fuel energy to power is more than 50% as compared to just over 30% for an average road car engine. As alluded by Honda, traditional car manufacturers are now shifting their resources towards clean technology in the form of electric cars, a trend which has been adopted by the US all electric car manufacturer Tesla. The current hybrid F1 cars do not have the capacity to be run on electricity at full speed due to lack of power that would be needed to last the race duration. The promotion of synthetic fuels and reduction in carbon consumption are the near term goals for F1 management.
A re-look at the F1 power unit regulations
It is a concern the Formula One landscape seeing the departure of the Japanese engine supplier to Red Bull Racing leaving the sport prematurely. The decision by Honda to walk away from the sport has sent shock waves in and around the F1 paddocks and will continue to reverberate throughout the 2020 season and beyond. Although there is an overhaul of technical regulations in 2022 but there is no new rules around power units until 2026 season. So the departure of Honda from F1 motorsport requires the dates to be reviewed with the intent to revise it to a closer date. It is a concern for the FIA and the racing teams alike to have only three engine manufacturers in the sport without a broader range of suppliers. The current engine architecture may need to be fast tracked sooner than later with view to attract new manufacturers for the development of the next generation powertrains.
Another view is that the F1 entry ticket is very high in terms of cost, technology and there is no guarantee that the new entrant would be competitive atleast in the short term. Therefore, engine manufacturers are unwilling to commit to new F1 projects even though the management has introduced a budget cap through the “Concorde Agreement” midway through the 2020 season. It is imperative that the FIA looks into this situation with the desired attention to make the sport more appealing and attractive to both engine suppliers, team, fans and the world at large.