Next year will see one of the biggest teams in Formula 1 make a translation from a championship winning engine partner, to a supplier who have yet reached a podium finish in their return to the sport.
Aston Martin Red Bull Racing will end their 12-year association with Renault at the end of the season, making the move to partner with Honda. Red Bull and Renault’s relationship has been shaky since the introduction of the current V6 Hybrid engines, having only won twelve times in a space of five years.
Once a championship winning force, the pair started to hit into trouble in 2014 when the Renault engine couldn’t work with the Red Bull package, whilst Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport kick started a new dynasty within F1. Dated up to the 2018 Mexican Grand Prix, Mercedes have won 72 races out of 98 races in this generation of engines, whilst Scuderia Ferrari have won fourteen times.
The tension between the two parties grew year on year as they fail to stop Mercedes and a recently re-surging Ferrari squad. The two would point fingers at each other, with Red Bull saying Renault engines are not powerful enough whilst Renault say the complexity of the Red Bull cars doesn’t help the engine in anyway.
Some hope was found in 2016 when Red Bull won two races with Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen, a year before where Red Bull failed to win and become complacent over their engine supplier, to the point they reconsidering replacing them. But in the end, they stuck with Renault but re-branded their engines as ‘Tag-Heuer’ powered cars with the help of Ilmor, who assisted with McLaren F1 Team in the past with Mercedes engines.
In 2017, Red Bull continued to win with the help of Renault engines but reliability issues plagued the team from capturing more wins over the season. But behind the scenes between Red Bull’s team principal Christian Horner and Renault’s Managing Director Cyril Abiteboul, the tension was at boiling point.
A snap hit when at the 2017 Singapore Grand Prix, McLaren announced they would end their relationship with Honda after three years and would take up Renault engines for 2018. At the same time, Red Bull’s sister team Toro Rosso would have their Renault engine deal cut short and would take up Honda engines the following year. The cut would also see Red Bull’s deal with Renault reduced until the end of 2018, with Red Bull needing to make a decision over its future for 2019 and beyond.
For Honda since returning to the sport in 2015, there was a lot of hype about the revival partnership of McLaren and Honda, with fans hoping for a re-boost of the glory days that saw Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost win titles. Unfortunately, Honda’s engine didn’t deliver as expected with multiple reliability issues and a lack of speed left McLaren Honda down to ninth overall in the constructors’ championship,
The infamous ‘GP2 Engine’ comment from Fernando Alonso at the Japanese Grand Prix showed that at the time, things weren’t looking great for the two parties. 2016 delivered some small hope, as McLaren finished sixth overall in the standings and Honda produced a somewhat par engine. It still had its failures, but was at least producing promising speed and was able to beat some of the midfield competition.
But in 2017, Honda decided to make a big blueprint change to their engine in a bid to squeeze more speed and to challenge with the likes of Mercedes and Ferrari. The change didn’t work and was a disaster for the team and Honda. The pair didn’t score their first points until eight races into the season in Azerbaijan with tension between the two camps growing as the team was running out of patience.
By Singapore, the deal was done and McLaren would take Renault engines whilst Honda would power the Italian team of Toro Rosso. This deal allowed Red Bull to get a close look at the Japanese engine and see if it would be worthy of a 2019 option.
By the French Grand Prix this year, Red Bull announced their switch to Honda engines for 2019 on a two-year deal. The deal would mark their 11-year association with Renault, having won four titles with Sebastian Vettel behind the wheel.
But since leading up to 2019, Red Bull and their drivers have been hyping up that the Honda engine will deliver in their first year at the team, even believing that it could crown Verstappen a world champion. A bold statement being made over its partnership and yet, they haven’t even put the engine in the car yet.
Statements like this create pressure and expectations for Honda in a short-term period, something McLaren were heavily relying on which both parties failed to do in their three year tenure.
Honda are the only engine supplier in F1 to have not made it onto the podium so far in the V6 Hybrid era. Despite having only ran in one team since rejoining in 2015, the engine is still unreliable and not producing the speed that would be competitive enough. Pierre Gasly grabbing a fourth place at the Bahrain Grand Prix this year, their results have been mediocre. Honda are still taking multiple grid penalties with Gasly and Brendon Hartley, something Red Bull will hope not to experience much of next year.
Honda reach pass their points scored from 2017, but recently been overtaken by Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Team in the constructors’ championship, leaving them in ninth. A position Honda has finished in the last two of three years.
Whilst Red Bull have been in a unique situation to analyse the Honda engine throughout 2018 with Red Bull Toro Rosso Honda, this is a big gamble for a team every year aims to win a championship. Trusting a new supplier to deliver a heavy expectation, something that they are not use to in their time back in F1 could lead to big consequences for Red Bull and Honda.
Not everyone is convinced by Red Bull’s switch to Honda. Daniel Ricciardo, who is leaving to join Renault Sport Formula One Team next year, admitted that he wasn’t too keen on the decision over the team using Honda engine in 2019. His departure left the door open to Gasly to get a promotion from Toro Rosso, following Honda to join Red Bull next year.
An important factor to note in this new era of Red Bull is that they’ll only be using Honda engines until 2020, having signed only a two year deal with the Japanese engine manufacturer. This opens a door for future suppliers should the plan fail and gives the team time to plan when the new 2021 technical regulations come into play. Red Bull’s title sponsor Aston Martin could be an option if they favour the new changes incoming regarding the power unit.
The decision to go with Honda was a gutsy call by the Milton Keynes based team, but its a big risk to their position as one of the big three teams in F1. If it goes wrong, that will open a door for one to take third place in the constructors’ championship.
The deal with Red Bull joining Honda was one of the surprises of the season, but could see it head down two paths: A successful partnership that pays off and finally brings Honda into the spotlight against the likes of Mercedes and Ferrari. Or one where Red Bull could fall into further trouble and drop down the table into the midfield.