Honda’s 21st century legacy in F1 as it prepares to exit the sport

The final race of the extraordinary 2021 season not only marks the end for the controversial 2017 regulation model and era of Formula 1, but it also marks the end of the road for one of the sport’s biggest manufacturers.

Honda is a name synonymous with F1, winning four drivers championships with McLaren between 1988 and 1991 in often dominant fashion. The classic red and white Marlboro livery adorning the McLaren’s of the time instantly evokes memories of the likes of Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna – and Suzuka!

Since 1964, Honda has entered 481 Formula 1 races in the chassis’ of teams such as: Honda, Spirit, Williams, Lotus, McLaren, Tyrrell, BAR, Jordan, Super Aguri, Toro Rosso, Red Bull and AlphaTauri.

BAR and Honda

Honda returned only eight years later in 2000, powering the former Tyrrell-Supertec team BAR. The team’s eventual successes (including second in the 2004 constructors championship) led Honda to complete a buyout of the entire outfit for 2006.

But its second stint as an F1 constructor would come to a shock halt at the end of the 2008 season, thanks in part to the global financial crisis which also facilitated the exits of BMW and eventually Renault and fellow Japanese manufacturer Toyota.

Earth Dreams technology powers Honda vehicles focused on fuel efficiency. Image: Formula 1

In 2009, the car designed by Honda during the 2008 campaign would go on to win both championships under the Brawn GP name, with a Mercedes engine squeezed into the car, and Honda proteges Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello at the wheel.

McLaren

Since 1995 McLaren enjoyed a works engines and partner deal with Mercedes, but Ross Brawn’s desperate search for a supplier for his Honda-designed Brawn GP001 for the 2009 regulation change caught the attention of Formula One Teams’ Association deputy and McLaren COO Martin Whitmarsh, who subsequently waived McLaren’s veto over their Mercedes deal and allowed Brawn to sign a contract with Mercedes. The hastily organised partnership of course went on to win Brawn both 2009 championships.

In comparison, a dismal 2009 campaign for McLaren – 101 points away from Brawn – would be the pre-cursor to a steady decline for the team yet to win any F1 world championship since 2008.

What McLaren at the time thought was a low-risk and empathetic thing to do for the sport in helping Brawn and handing over its exclusive hold on the Mercedes engine, would ultimately and bizarrely lead to the formation of the all-conquering Mercedes team and subsequent McLaren Honda partnership.

The bizarre decision to design an all-new car for the last season of the V8 era in 2013, the only team choosing to do so, not only slowed their future development course but also produced a worse car than the one preceding it. Scoring not even a single podium finish.

When the 2014 regulations overhaul exposed McLaren’s inherent weaknesses through particularly sub-par performances, a frustrated Ron Dennis came to the conclusion that it’s impossible to win in F1 without a works engine deal by your side.

Dennis therefore remarkably persuaded Honda back to F1 to revitalise the historic McLaren Honda name that had been missing from the sport for 22 years.

A return to the glory days for McLaren was touted, but keen to distance himself as quickly as possible from customer status, Dennis forced Honda to enter the sport a year earlier than intended. What would follow was an abysmal campaign as Honda struggled to work around McLaren’s size-zero demands whilst trying to out-develop the competition who’d enjoyed a sizeable head-start on their enormously complex, cutting-edge hybrid power units.

In fact I remember waiting for the news reports from the first pre-season test in Jerez simply stating how far the new MP4-30 had made it down the pit lane this time before expiring.

Those select few in the grandstands at Turn 1 at the cold Jerez circuit benovelently cheered the few times the car and its distinctive Honda downshift growl circulated the track.

However for week two of testing things would go from bad to worse, as star-signing Alonso crashed into the wall on the inside of the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya’s infamous Turn 3.

Even though damage looked minimal, the two-time champion was taken away in an air ambulance and hospitalised. The exact cause of the accident, and the extent of Alonso’s injuries have been kept tightly under wraps to this day.

What turned out to be persistent ERS-K seal failures during testing were said to be cured prior to the season’s start, but the system could not be used anywhere near its optimum level without serious reliability concerns.

The first race of the year would see Kevin Magnussen step back up to replace the injured Alonso, but he wouldn’t even make the grid thanks to a power unit failure.

The precedent had been set for the year to come as Button and newly-recruited Alonso struggled to make it out of Q1 all season, the car averaged around 2.5 seconds off the pace and by the end of the year the team had descended to 9th in the standings in front of financially-starved Manor.

Even in this, the inaugural year of the partnership, the relationship was beginning to fray, as McLaren insisted the chassis was better than that of the front-runners, and the lack of power from the Honda PU was their only Achilles heel.

Honda believed from their data that the chassis and aerodynamic package from McLaren needed work, with tensions flaring around the time of Alonso’s ‘GP2 engine’ remarks at Honda’s home race at Suzuka.

2016 was Jenson’s Button last full-time season in F1. Image: Formula 1

A car coined “innovative” in pre-season, 2016’s MP4-31 showed promise over its troubled predecessor but certainly not the potential to fight for victories.

Another early season accident for Alonso in Melbourne – the car barrel-rolling over the Turn 3 gravel trap after contact with Haas’ Esteban Gutierrez – meant rookie Stoffel Vandoorne would make his point-scoring debut in F1 in Bahrain.

A notable 5th place qualifying result (3rd on the grid) for Jenson Button in Austria equalled his best qualifying position since the 2014 British Grand Prix. He managed to bring the car home 6th, bringing the season’s tally thus far to 27 – more than points tally of the entire 2015 season.

Completing the year with 76 points (6th in the Constructors) was seen as a positive step forward for the two automotive giant’s brave-faced alliance.

The McLaren MCL32 was the first McLaren F1 car not containing the MP4 prefix (derived from the merge with Project 4) since the 1980 M30. Zak Brown had acquired the helm of the team with the McLaren Technology Group board removing Ron Dennis as CEO from the company.

The MCL32 would also be the last Honda powered McLaren, as Brown chose to cut ties with the Japanese manufacturer and join forces with Renault for 2018.

Fernando Alonso spins the MCL32 after a power unit failure in pre-season testing in Spain. Image: Formula 1

2017 proved a tough year yet again with newfound reliability issues curtailing several pre-season test days and early season races for both Alonso and the retiring Jenson Button’s replacement Stoffel Vandoorne.

McLaren fell once again to a disastrous 9th and attained a disappointing 30 points.

Toro Rosso, AlphaTauri and Red Bull

The advantages of controlling two of F1’s ten entries meant Red Bull chose to capitalise on Honda’s egress from McLaren, and the revelation from Renault that they did not have the capacity to supply McLaren, Red Bull, Toro Rosso and the Renault works team.

Promising a place in the back of the Red Bull Racing cars in future if Honda and Toro Rosso could spark an effective relationship, Toro Rosso would end its customer contract with Renault in favour of joining forces with Honda.

In pre-season testing Honda showed great progress completing more laps in one week than McLaren Honda managed in a fortnight the previous year.

In Bahrain, Pierre Gasly took the chequered flag on Sunday in 4th – the highest finish for Honda power since returning to F1.

Correlation issues with the car aerodynamically wouldn’t stop Red Bull confirming a two-year deal had been signed between Red Bull Racing and Honda.

Frustrated with Renault, Red Bull teamed up with the brand who felt a similar feeling with McLaren only a year earlier in what many saw as a marriage of convenience.

However the partnership was seemingly a marriage made in heaven, with the outfit taking victory after only nine races, in Austria.

“It was a very emotive win for Honda in Austria,” said Red Bull team principal Christian Horner. “Some of their board members were there and they are starting to see, after all those painful years with McLaren, that the investment is paying off.”

“Now [Honda] have tasted success and they see the benefit that success brings. After the difficulty of their reintroduction back into F1, the victory was the tonic they needed.”

Pierre Gasly on the famous Monza podium after taking a shock victory for AlphaTauri. Image: Formula 1

Honda would also go on to win with AlphaTauri (formerly Toro Rosso) in the hands of Pierre Gasly at the Italian Grand Prix in 2020. The Japanese brand was at the time therefore the only power unit supplier of the hybrid era to win a race with two different teams. Renault (Red Bull and Alpine) and Mercedes (Mercedes and McLaren) have since joined them in 2021 after the Hungarian and Italian Grands Prix respectively.

The early successes of the Red Bull-Honda partnership would precede, what with the COVID-19 pandemic forcing a shift of new aerodynamic regulations from 2021 to 2022 – and hasty downforce-cutting regulations for 2021, a dramatic championship battle between Red Bull and Mercedes for the Constructor’s and Driver’s titles.

All eyes are now on Abu Dhabi as Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton head into the season finale neck-and-neck on 369.5 points. Were Verstappen to win the title, or Red Bull to win the Constructors, it would be the first championship win of any kind for Honda since 1991.

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