Farewell, Honda, Farewell
Honda have now had four separate era's in F1. When will we see you again?
1964 - 1968 | 1983 - 1992 | 2000-2008 | 2015 - 2021
Honda are one of those car manufacturers that seem to have been born with the motor racing bug, and like many manufacturers that dip in and out of the highest levels of racing, there is no cure for the obsession.
Just four years after the first Honda production car rolled off the assembly line Honda had decided that they would enter the world of Formula 1. They did this, not with a wise hand guiding them from a more experienced racing manufacturer that could provide some of their car, but with their own engine and chassis, a feat only Ferrari and BRM had achieved at the time. The first year went by without any celebrations, but in just their second year in the sport they scored a win at the 1965 Mexican GP, Richie Ginther had qualified third behind Jim Clarke snd Dan Gurney. That race win would be the only one of the 1965 season won by a team without a British-powered car. It took another couple of years to find another race win, this time with John Surtees at the wheel for the 1967 Italian GP.
Time would be called on Honda's first era of Formula One the following year as the never-ending seesaw between a love of motor racing and the desire by the management to concentrate their efforts on production road vehicles began. The death of Jo Schlesser was a dark day for Honda and doubtlessly edged the company toward their final decision to leave the sport. It was farewell for the first time, but it wouldn't be their last.
The second era began in 1983, this time Honda entered as an engine supplier, a decision that appeared to find a balance with the management at Honda HQ. This was a time when engineering for efficiency, power, and longevity was crucial, and proving their engines in F1 wouldn't just give the company kudos, there were real gains to be made that could translate to road car technology. Honda partnered with Sprint, Williams, Lotus, and finally Tyrell in this time. This era also brought the tuning firm Mugen to a global audience. Honda didn't provide the same engines to every manufacturer and whilst McLaren had their engines come straight from the Honda factory, Tyrell were given previous model engines, not the fastest and greatest that McLaren received. Mugen would step in and fine-tune the engines for Tyrell, cementing the tuners name for decades to come as the go-to brand for those wanting to squeeze more from their Honda road cars, whether that be the street racers of Tokyo, or those wanting to stand out from the rest on the ever busying roads of America and Europe. Honda's engines became the ones to beat in Formula 1, by 1985 they had proven themselves to be capable of giving race wins. This era spanned new regulations, from the 1.5 litre turbo V6 engines to the 3.5 naturally aspirated V10's. The final race of the turbo era was the 1988 Australian GP and ended with the top two steps of the podium being Honda powered, Senna victorious over Prost in the McLaren-Honda.
As has become a constant in the Honda story, they bow out of the sport whilst still being a titan, finishing second behind the Williams FW14B in 1992 the Japanese Market collapsed caused by an asset bubble meaning that Honda needed to make a swift exit from the sport and concentrate their efforts in keeping the company afloat.
The Third era began at the turn of the millennium. The year 2000 restarted Honda's interest in F1. Initially, they returned as an engine supplier for BAR, and then supplied engines for Jordan in 2001/02 as well. Honda increased their share in BAR to own nearly half the team and managed second place as a constructor in 2004, behind the dominant duo of Ferrari and Michael Schumacher.
In 2006 Honda bought up the remaining majority in the BAR team to make a full return as a Honda Racing team to F1. Drivers Button and Barrichello appeared to be gelling well with the team although Barrichello would take some time to adjust to the car. Fortunes felt like they could only improve. There were notable performances from the drivers, particularly Button that had taken the Honda from near the back of the grid to first on a couple of occasions. Step into the 2008 season and things really begin hotting up. Ross Brawn, the Ferrari technical director left the prancing horse to join Honda. The driver pairing remained as Barrichello became more comfortable with the car and Button continued to improve his performances. Unfortunately, the season quickly became a disappointment and so attention was switched to 2009 early when new regulations would come into effect. The 2008 season wasn't a complete disappointment for Honda, but it ended far from where they hoped they would be, then another financial crisis would force the team's hand, management made the decision to exit the sport, despite the hopes for 2009 and the positive prospect of a race-winning car, Honda left the sport. The team was bought out and changed its name to Brawn GP, powered by Mercedes for the 2009 season. Jenson Button would go on to win the 2009 World Championship in the car.
Toro Rosso received the Spec 3 engine from Honda, pushing them into a team that could now reach Q3.
It took another six years but Honda returned to F1, again entering as an engine manufacturer, supplying McLaren in what both companies hoped would be the start of a new McLaren-Honda dominance. Sadly the partnership was plagued with issues especially as Honda decided in 2017 that they would redesign major aspects of their engine, including introducing a split turbo. They admitted it would take time to perfect the reworked unit but set out to convince McLaren that with some time and effort to fine-tune their creation the engine could deliver race wins. Reliability plagued the McLaren team in 2017 as they worked through the kinks with Honda, but ultimately felt like the partnership could not continue and by the end of 2017 McLaren announced they would split from Honda and move to a Renault power supply. Toro Rosso, the junior Redbull team would keep the Honda name in the sport though as they opted to switch to the Japanese manufacturer in the hope it would bring them success as they fought a tough battle on the grid for points finishes. Honda were moving forward in leaps and bounds by this point, Franz Tost, team Principal of Toro Rosso was impressed with Honda, and as Honda increased their efforts their engine began to mature into something that could challenge the best on the grid. This led to Redbull Racing looking over at their sister team and becoming impressed, just as they were feeling disappointed with a Renault partnership they felt wasn't delivering enough for them to compete at the front. The Spec 2 engine clinched the deal as the improvement in power really started to show in the Toro Rosso team. Redbull penned a deal for two years. Before the end of the season, Toro Rosso received the Spec 3 engine from Honda, pushing them into a team that could now reach Q3.
2019 became the season where all Honda's hard work finally paid off, in the first race of the season Verstappen managed a podium, Honda were back on the map in a big way. The partnership between Honda, Redbull and Toro Rosso (that would become Alpha Tauri the following year) blossomed. Honda only had to wait until early summer 2019 to see all their hard work turn into a race win, Verstappen taking the top step in the Austrian GP. Honda wasn't about to pop champagne and rest of their laurels though, the Spec 4 engine arrived for the Italian GP, and with it another bump in overall performance, increased reliability, and better efficiency. The improvements were so strong that Redbull scored a 1-2 finish in Brazil that year, the first 1-2 finish for the Honda name since Berger took first from Senna in the McLaren-Honda of 1991.
Success followed not just with the partnership between Redbull and Honda, but with Alpha Tauri and Honda, Pierre Gasly with a remarkable race win in the 2020 Italian GP. Honda went from a poor start to their fourth era to being described as the only engine that could compete with the mighty Mercedes unit that had won every constructor's championship in the hybrid era. Once again, just as Honda had everything lined up with seemingly only the stars set as their limit, they announced it was time to leave, this time due to the worsening economy thanks to the Covid Pandemic, and a need to focus on electric-only power units as they reached a net-zero pledge for their production cars by 2030. There was no space left for the development of racing engines in their corporate structure. 2021 would be their last hurrah, and they committed to leaving with a bang. After a long, incredible season, 2021 ended with Max Verstappen passing the chequered flag in the final race of the season to take the World Driver's Championship. The constructors would go to Mercedes, but after years of commitment, Honda would leave the sport the same day that they would finally return to glory.
Redbull have committed to keeping the power unit in both their and Alpha Tauri cars to 2025 and will continue to develop the engine with the help of some Honda staff, but it will be a Redbull Racing engine as of 2022.
Once again Honda leaves the sport, no doubt still curious to return, and with the bug still fluttering around somewhere around the halls of their HQ. Fitting that after leaving in 2008 with such promise, they will leave 2021 not wondering what could have been, they forever have another World Drivers Championship in their legacy. The whole of F1 says a sad farewell to Honda, and we all hope it is merely a farewell for now, instead of a final chapter.
Hopefully one day we will again see the Honda name at the pinnacle of motorsport. So long.