Why is Honda leaving?
Honda’s leaving Formula 1 because it feels it has a new obligation now on the automotive side to make a huge step in terms of its carbon footprint, and its development of more sustainable engine technology and energies.
It has established a new technology center earlier this year with a view to helping it achieve its goal of making two thirds of its automotive sales electric by 2030. And then being completely carbon neutral as a company by 2050.
These are bold targets. Honda says it needs all of its financial, human and technological resources currently being deployed in Formula 1, to be redirected towards this new pursuit. Otherwise, it’s not going to achieve what it says are massive targets.
If it hadn’t already committed to Red Bull and AlphaTauri for the 2021 season, I think Honda would have withdrawn immediately. Instead, it will do so at the end of next year.
Could Red Bull take over the Honda project?
There are a couple of ways in theory it could do this. It could fund Sakura, it could fund Honda’s own project. Or badge it as something else, like the TAG-Porsche days.
But this is extremely unlikely because it would be very expensive for Red Bull. And it would be awkward because it would still have the logistical difficulties of a Japanese base. It’s also unlikely that Honda would be up for this because it needs the resource at Sakura to achieve its new automotive targets. If Sakura was free of that, then maybe Honda wouldn’t be withdrawing from F1 in the first place.
So, the alternative is for Red Bull to buy the intellectual property and build the engine itself or get another partner on board to build an engine from that IP. Whether that would be legal, whether that would be something that Honda and Red Bull is up for, is obviously the big question.
So what now for Red Bull and AlphaTauri?
Basically, it’s a huge question mark for the pair of them. But it does look like it could force them back to Renault.
The priority will be Mercedes because it’s the best engine in Formula 1. But that’s going to depend on whether Mercedes is willing to supply a direct rival. Despite all the rumours, Mercedes insists that its works team is going nowhere.
Red Bull presumably wouldn’t want to go near Ferrari anyway, because it’s made a backward step. And Ferrari will not want to power a rival either.
So as much as Red Bull had this really horrible divorce from Renault in 2018, the dissolution of what was once such a successful partnership, the FIA rules are such that they would demand that Renault supply Red Bull if all else fails. Because there is a requirement for the manufacturer that supplies the lowest number of teams (which is Renault) to supply any team without an engine.
Are there any new engine manufacturers?
Part of why these are Red Bull’s options is because there is no new manufacturer on the horizon. And this is a big part of the fallout of this Honda situation because it shows how complicated, expensive and problematic F1′s current engine situation is. It has decreed that it must stay relevant for automotive manufacturers. But there were only four that were interested and capable of actually competing in F1 in such an expensive and complex formula. There’s no one on the sidelines. Engine specifications are going to be frozen as of next year, with new regulations not coming in until 2026. It’s really difficult to imagine that a new manufacturer will come in before then. And this could prompt Formula 1 to seriously reconsider its engine rules.
What about Max Verstappen?
He was really encouraged by Honda, really enthusiastic about what they were doing, and very much committed to the Honda project. He was also a key part of why Red Bull and Renault fell out, because Max would not bite his tongue, and consistently criticised Renault’s product.
He’s unlikely to therefore be motivated by Red Bull and Renault reuniting. Although Renault’s recent progress might be enough to convince him otherwise.
I’d imagine this nudges Max even closer to move to Brackley and what is now the Mercedes team. They’ve been interested in for a long time. Lewis Hamilton’s future is still to be decided. In any case, there is a seat going alongside him beyond 2021.
It would be crazy for all of the leading teams to not be sounding out what Verstappen’s exit clauses are within a Red Bull contract that technically runs to 2023.
My gut reaction is that an engine partner is not all Red Bull seriously risks losing as a result of Honda’s exit.