Formula 1 returned in spectacular fashion with Sunday’s Austrian Grand Prix, and while it wasn’t the result we had hoped for, it was so good to be back racing.
The sport itself and the world in general has been through a lot since the Australian Grand Prix was cancelled in March, so we caught up with F1 Managing Director Masashi Yamamoto to find out what Honda has been dealing with in order to be fighting at the front from the first round.
“During the suspension period, the FIA and all the power unit manufacturers agreed to have a shutdown period,” Yamamoto-san explains. “So we did the shutdown in our factory as well and had to stop development. That meant we had a bit of a change in our development schedule compared to what we originally planned. But we recreated the plan and prepared for the restart in July.
“We do the main development in Sakura, but because of the shutdown we had to change the development schedule. Due to the regulation change after the Covid-19 pandemic the FIA banned power unit updates during the season, so the first spec that we used in Austria we have to use until the end of the year.
“We originally planned a number of updates during the season, so we had to change that plan and try and put everything together before the Austrian Grand Prix which was the main challenge.”
While the development plan has changed, upgrades for reliability reasons are permitted during the season, so that is where the focus has been back at the factories since the shutdown. In Austria we got to see the first track running to correlate the work that has been done, and Yamamoto-san is satisfied with the performance level of the power unit so far, even if rivals impressed him too.
“In practice we were seeing what we expected from the dyno, especially on the long runs as well,” he says. “So everything was as we had planned, but we were surprised by the progress Mercedes has made, especially in qualifying, so we were a little bit surprised by the gap we had to them.”
The race performance looked more encouraging, with both Aston Martin Red Bull Racing cars looking set for big results. Max was well-placed to challenge Valtteri Bottas for victory as he ran second but on a harder tyre compound, only to slow after 11 laps. Then Alex took up the mantle and was hit by Lewis Hamilton when overtaking the Mercedes for second place in the closing stages, ending his hopes of a maiden win before he was later forced to stop.
“There were electrical issues for both cars, so we have been checking all the harnesses and the PU itself as we can,” Yamamoto-san says.
“It’s clear that the incidents that Max and Alex had were different issues, but we can run the same PUs again this weekend and have put countermeasures in place after our investigations, so hopefully at the same venue we can see the benefit of that.”
The final result was tough to take, especially in the knowledge that both cars had chances to win at different stages. But being so competitive also means there were plenty of positives to take from the opening weekend from a Red Bull perspective.
“We were behind Mercedes in qualifying, however from the performance in the race we think we can be competitive against them, at least on Sundays. That was positive, but we need to make sure we don’t have the various troubles again.
“Alex was very impressive, as was the way the team changed strategy and pit him for soft tyres near the end. Alex responded immediately and performed very well with the different tyres. He was almost in front of Lewis before he was hit by him, so it’s very frustrating that we missed a good result from the race.”
While Red Bull ended up without any points to show from a race we had been aiming to win, there was still a good result for Scuderia AlphaTauri as Pierre picked up six points for the newly-named team.
“It must have been a very difficult decision for the team not to pit during the Safety Car, opting to stick with a one-stop strategy. But Pierre managed his hard tyres really well after the restart and we appreciate his performance, it was a very good drive.”
Due to the condensed nature of the championship - with eight races in ten weeks - immediately, attentions turned to preparing for the second race at the Red Bull Ring this weekend. But away from the track we are taking a longer-term view when it comes to development, while the 2020 season target remains the same - to win.
“We will work on reliability if we think we need to, but because we cannot do anything about performance we are now focusing our development onto the 2021 power unit, which will be the same as everybody else. That’s the attitude we will take from now on.
“After finishing the first round we saw some issues of course, especially our performance in qualifying which is something we have to try and improve somehow within the regulations. But we were able to see a good performance in the race and we think we can compete against Mercedes, so we just want to continue constantly competing against them this season, that’s our target.”
Sadly, we won’t get to enjoy that competition in front of the huge numbers of incredible Japanese fans at Suzuka, but Yamamoto-san is determined to continue trying to put on a show that excites spectators as much as Sunday’s race did.
“It was an inevitable decision and we agree with the FIA and the organisers about not having a race at Suzuka, but it is very disappointing and frustrating because we were expecting that we could have a good year fighting with Mercedes with Red Bull, and also against the midfield with AlphaTauri in strong positions. So it is a shame that we cannot show it to the fans in front of them, but we hope they enjoy watching the races on TV and we can make them proud.”