Nine races down in the 2021 Formula 1 season, and Honda-powered cars have a 66% win rate this year, a statistic boosted by five straight wins for Red Bull Racing from Monaco to Austria.
With Max Verstappen taking three wins in a row to lead the drivers’ championship and Red Bull at the top of the constructors’ standings, we thought it would be a good time to find out how Honda F1 Technical Director Toyoharu Tanabe is feeling about the year so far.
“It was a little bit tricky at the beginning of the season, and now we look better than we did in the first races,” Tanabe-san says. “I want to think about how difficult it is to win many races in a row - it requires improving overall performance and doing everything in every race to make everything work correctly. Five consecutive wins is a great result but I want to concentrate on each and every race in the future and the results will follow.”
It’s true that complete focus and impressive execution at each race has been necessary to pick up those wins, but Tanabe-san believes it’s also important to recognise the work that has gone on behind-the-scenes, away from the track, to put Red Bull Honda in that position in the first place.
“I think it’s a great situation to have good performance and to have won six races out of the nine so far. As a result we are leading both the drivers’ and constructors’ championship, so it’s good. On the other hand, 23 races are planned for this season and the fact is only nine races have been completed, so there’s still a long way to go.
“The overall package performance has been improved from a lot of hard work from last season and the off-season, and we haven’t stopped even after we started the season. So these efforts improved our performance and then we achieved the current performance.”
It’s not just performance that leads to victories either, as we haven’t suffered a single PU-related retirement with Red Bull and that has helped open up a 44-point lead in the constructors’ championship.
While he’s encouraged by the position we find ourselves in, Tanabe will not let himself get carried away with what he’s seen so far, with 14 more races still planned for this season in what is set to be a record-breaking year.
“So far we have only had nine races and then we introduced the second PU for three drivers from the French Grand Prix. The PU works as expected in terms of performance and reliability, but again there have only been nine races completed, so we have a long season from now and we’ll keep watching and make a balance between performance and reliability. We will adapt the PU usage if it is required.”
That doesn’t mean Tanabe-san can’t be drawn to a particular high point so far in 2021. Of the six wins, it’s actually a race that saw the leader retire that he remembers fondly for the fact it shows what the Honda-powered teams are capable of in the face of adversity.
“The highlight for me is the Azerbaijan race which is a combination of the bad and good which happened during the race. Unfortunately Max retired with a burst tyre when he was leading the race with good pace.
“Checo [Perez] took over the leading position from Max and brought the victory to Red Bull Honda - I think it was a race that showed the strength of the teamwork so that’s why it is one of my highlights from this year at the moment.
“It was the race we almost achieved a one-two but unfortunately only got first place, but it’s not only Red Bull. Also AlphaTauri had a strong qualifying and race there, so a one-two is one of our targets but being on the podium with AlphaTauri is another target for us.”
AlphaTauri’s year has been a little more up and down than Red Bull’s, but that’s to be expected when there’s a rookie and such a close midfield fight. Regularly Pierre and Yuki are finding themselves fighting with the likes of Ferrari and McLaren, and they sit a strong fifth in the standings - a position that would mark the best result for the team in its history if it can maintain it.
“We started working with AlphaTauri - or Toro Rosso as it was in the past - since 2018. It’s good for Honda that AlphaTauri is performing well in the middle group and they are fighting each other very closely. Gasly showed strong performance in recent qualifying and the rookie Tsunoda is improving his knowledge and performance gradually. I believe they must be a strong team.”
There have been so many positive signs so far this year, but that doesn’t guarantee success moving forward. Relative dominance at the Red Bull Ring is not certain to translate to Silverstone, and Tanabe-san doesn’t have expectations of specific circuits, but we are preparing for the different test that next weekend will provide.
“Every circuit is difficult for us! When we finish a race we can tell if it was easier, but before we go there it is impossible - we can’t say it will be easy. Every single race is difficult for us.
“One of the topics from the next race at Silverstone is that the Sprint qualifying format will be introduced as a new challenge. It is necessary to optimise the PU set-up as much as possible with only one free practice session before qualifying. Have the Sprint race also means that the mileage in race mode will be extended. So it is necessary to consider PU management of that area as well.
“In the future Sprint qualifying will be applied in two more races this season, so it is necessary to think about how to use our PU by looking at the situation from the next race. It’s getting complicated to manage the PU allocation for the entire season.”
That allocation takes into account two power units so far after the second of the season was introduced in France, but it led to accusations from rivals that it delivered a major step forward in performance which is not allowed in this year’s rules. While Tanabe-san admits he is “a little” frustrated by such a claim, he also sees the compliment in Honda being targeted for the impressive performance level.
“I think we need to clearly explain to the people that we are fighting the race season according to the FIA PU regulations. I am happy to hear those rumours or see articles on the internet or in magazines. I feel we have improved and then people look at us more. It’s good for Honda and both of our teams.”
So far, this year is a good one for Honda, too, but it’s the final standings that really matter. And to that end, there is a clear determination to hold onto the current advantage in both championships to sign off from Formula 1 in style.
“Once Honda participates in a race, regardless of the category, our target is always to win each race and to win the championship. Then for Honda in Formula 1, if we miss out this year it means that we miss out in the final year of Honda’s Formula 1 participation and we will not be able to achieve our target.
“There is still a long way to go but we will do our best in the remaining races one-by-one to achieve our goal and to achieve our desire.”