The marriage between Red Bull and Honda pairs together a team that regularly flaunts its chassis with an engine manufacturer determined to prove it can cut it in Formula 1.
But how have both reached this stage?
When Red Bull took over the ailing Jaguar squad in 2005 Honda was itself re-emerging as a Formula 1 contender, taking podiums – and a win – with Jenson Button.
Red Bull’s switch from Ferrari to Renault power for 2007 barely caused a ripple but it would prove to be the start of one of the most important relationships of the 2010s, a period of supremacy followed by the long, slow and fractious amble towards divorce.
Honda’s dismal 2007/08 campaigns, allied to the accentuating global financial crisis, led to its exit, though, viewed through the prism of hindsight the building blocks it put in place allowed Brawn GP to thrive, its early-season form enough to swat aside Red Bull.
Red Bull, having acquired the services of Adrian Newey in 2007, pinpointed overhauled regulation changes as its opportunity to emerge from the midfield – and its goals were met.
Wins came in 2009 while in 2010 the RB6 was comfortably the quickest car and Sebastian Vettel won the title with a Renault-powered car, the manufacturer gradually switching its focus to Red Bull as it reduced its stake in the Enstone-based team, title-winners in 2005/06.
Red Bull successfully defended both Drivers’ and Constructors’ titles in 2011, 2012 and 2013, with Vettel brilliantly adapting to the counter-intuitive driving style that meant exhaust blowing could be fully maximised.
Then came the hybrid era – and a lot of ‘it’s not me, it’s you’, finger-pointing, and snide remarks.
Even in the V8 era, Renault’s engine was not the most powerful, but the strong driveability led to an excellent package. But not in 2014.
Mercedes hit the ground running, Renault did not – and that was bad news for Red Bull, which suffered from a lack of reliability and performance, ending its title chances before they even started.
Red Bull began to regularly and publicly criticise Renault, which in turn felt that its success in the 2010-13 era had barely been acknowledged, and was not taking the flak without having enjoyed the prior rewards.
Promises of gains in 2015 went unfulfilled as Ferrari – and Williams – overtook Red Bull, and the relationship almost collapsed.
Red Bull sounded out Mercedes and Ferrari as potential partners – unsuccessfully so – and threatened to quit the sport, angered at the regulations, while Renault set the wheels in motion to buy back the Enstone-based squad, then called Lotus. Rumours linked Red Bull to the Volkswagen Group – but then the Dieselgate scandal erupted. Red Bull struck a renewed deal with Renault, albeit with the caveat that the engines would be badged under the TAG Heuer branding.
Renault, though, did not take the biggest flak in 2015 – that went to Honda.
Honda returned as McLaren’s exclusive supplier in a bid to rekindle the phenomenally successful partnership of the late 1980s and early 1990s, McLaren having felt that its championship prospects were non-existent with Mercedes in the wake of the Silver Arrows’ full-time F1 return – ironically having taken over the ex-Honda team!
Expectations were high but the project began disastrously, as McLaren’s aggressive aerodynamic concept accentuated Honda’s problems, which were exacerbated by the tightly-regulated development rules, as Honda tried to get back into the F1 groove. Progress came in 2016 but Honda realised that a different, more conforming, power unit concept was required in order to reach its rivals – and implemented those changes for 2017. But the initial weeks of the season were beset by problems – Fernando Alonso claimed pre-season that there was “no power, no reliability” – and it was a near-return to 2015. Matters did gradually improve, but McLaren management had already determined that it could not continue the partnership into a fourth season, having already sounded out Mercedes early in 2017. McLaren remained unconvinced that Honda could ever produce the goods, and was willing to take a substantial financial hit in order to ditch its works partnership and secure a customer deal with Renault.
That, ostensibly, put it on a level playing field with Red Bull – which had been keeping an eye on the situation.
Honda, having been set to head into 2018 with McLaren and Sauber on its books, was left in a quandary. Newly-installed Sauber chief Frederic Vasseur recognised a close alliance with Ferrari was its best chance of long-term recovery and almost immediately cancelled the Honda tie-up agreed a few months previously by Monisha Kaltenborn.
Honda reached an agreement with Toro Rosso, which was delighted at the opportunity to effectively become a works team after several years of feeling like a used ex, which reached its nadir in Brazil last year when a spate of engine failures prompted it to issue an extraordinary tirade against Renault.
The Toro Rosso-Honda deal was a win-win for both: Honda, having installed a new technical structure, effectively splitting Yusuke Hasegawa’s responsibilities and bringing in ex-engineer Toyoharu Tanabe to head up its on-site F1 operations, could develop out of the intense spotlight that a partnership with McLaren brought, and with a team that had more modest resources, while, seemingly, being more accommodating to requests.
Toro Rosso-Honda displayed encouraging pace and reliability during pre-season testing that has largely been transposed into Grands Prix, with only the occasional engine-related setback. Pierre Gasly stunned with a strong fourth place in Bahrain, prompting the cheeky “now we can fight” radio message, ostensibly directed at McLaren, whose own performance has prompted some internal finger pointing and a realisation that Honda, while far from perfect, was not the only anchor to its ambitions.
Canada represented a defining moment in the season, with both Renault and Honda bringing updates, the event ideally timed in terms of a development schedule, with the circuit layout a crucial test of engine power. Red Bull was in a position in order to directly compare both – and it has plumped for Honda.
For Red Bull, it gives it a chance to effectively pick up a works deal (having effectively lost it for 2016) – with the added bonus of one of its rivals having taken the development pain for years – while conversely Honda gets an (another?) crack with a top team, for what will be the fifth season of its return, having been able to make gains relatively out of the limelight so far this year.
“It is one of the top teams,” said Honda’s General Manager of Motor Sports Division Masashi Yamamoto says. “It has won several championships and this year too it has already won some races. In addition, it is also obvious that they have a very good chassis and this means we’ll have better chances of winning races. This gives further motivation to all the members of Honda, but at the same time, it is a huge pressure and responsibility for us. However, it is Honda’s nature to always aspire to a very high target, and I think that’s what makes Honda Honda. As a starting point, we do not want to see Red Bull Racing’s performance drop below its current level. But our target is to go further and do better than they are doing at the moment.”
How the Red Bull-Honda relationship develops on- and off-track, with a view to the next cycle of regulations in 2021, will provide another fascinating story in Formula 1.