Honda, which supplies engines to Red Bull and AlphaTauri, has announced it is to pull out of Formula One at the end of 2021 in a major shock which carries weighty ramifications for both Red Bull and the sport. Only three engine manufacturers remain in F1 and Red Bull face limited options in engine supply, while the sport must now consider which direction it takes in power units to ensure its future.
Honda returned to Formula One in 2015 with McLaren and endured three difficult years during which their engine was well off the pace. When McLaren dropped them they supplied Toro Rosso for one year in 2018 and Red Bull took them on as a works partner in 2019, since when they have enjoyed some success. Max Verstappen scored three wins for the team last year and won at Silverstone in August but they are not challenging for the championship. Honda, however, insist the decision was not made because of performance.
F1 uses turbo-hybrid power units in which the petrol-fuelled internal combustion engine still plays a central role. Honda announced at a press conference on Friday that their interests as a car manufacturer were no longer best represented by F1, stating that the industry was undergoing a “once-in-one-hundred-years period of great transformation”. The company’s intent is to reach carbon neutrality by 2050 and to focus on future power units with the goal of carbon-free technology.
Red Bull have a relatively short time to find an alternative. Mercedes will be supplying three other teams in 2021 and have declined to sell engines to Red Bull, their closest competitor, in the past. Ferrari supply Alfa Romeo and Haas but their power unit is uncompetitive. Renault is the only manufacturer left, although there is the possibility that Red Bull could opt to manufacture their own engine, perhaps based on acquiring the rights to the Honda unit, but this would be a hugely expensive commitment.
Red Bull enjoyed great success with Renault, winning four titles between 2010 and 2013. However when the turbo-hybrid era began in 2014 they were off the pace and their relationship with Red Bull became increasingly acrimonious, ending badly in 2018.
Red Bull recently signed a new commercial deal with F1 committing to stay in the sport until 2025 and their team principal, Christian Horner, insisted they would adapt to the new circumstances in the wake of Honda’s announcement. “Their decision presents obvious challenges for us as a team but we have been here before and with our strength in depth we are well prepared and equipped to respond effectively, as we have proven in the past,” he said.
Renault will only make power units for their own team in 2022. Their team principal, Cyril Abiteboul, said at the Italian Grand Prix that they were only interested in supplying engines on a partnership basis, rather than a straight-sale customer deal. At the time he was sceptical that Red Bull would meet that requirement.
Renault may be obliged to, however, as F1 rules state that if a team cannot source an engine the manufacturer supplying the least number of teams is obliged to do so. If their engine does not improve to compete with Mercedes, Red Bull face a trying four years that may not only test their commitment to F1 but also that of Verstappen, who will be courted by other teams if denied a chance to challenge for a title.
Honda’s withdrawal also leaves the sport under huge pressure. The turbo-hybrid power units were designed to attract manufacturers but Honda was the only one to have joined since 2014. Their expense and complexity of the units has put them out of reach for independent manufacturers, leaving the sport in a precarious position. Were Renault or Mercedes to pull out it would be a body blow.
Formula One’s sporting director, Ross Brawn, has said no new manufacturers will enter until 2026. The design of the units is set to be decided in the next 18 months, with F1 examining using synthetic fuels. However, Honda’s decision has highlighted the increasing divergence between the sport and the move towards electrification that car manufacturers are taking. If the sport is to survive, the decisions made in the near future for 2026 are vital, including a shift towards making the manufacture of engines affordable beyond the major players in the car industry.