“It is obviously the last year for Honda, so we want to win as much as possible and we want to fight for the championship for sure.”
Six years and 119 races since returning to Formula 1, Honda’s final season of this era begins this weekend at the Bahrain Grand Prix, and F1 Managing Director Masashi Yamamoto is unwavering on what the final goal is after making “three clear steps” since 2015.
“I feel like we’ve had a very good step forward each time,” Yamamoto-san says ahead of the opening race of the 2021 season. “The first period was coming back with McLaren where we learned a lot about what F1 is like in terms of the negatives and the positives.
“The second one was with Toro Rosso and it was kind of like the preparation to make a competitive engine where we can fight for the championship. We also learned a lot from the team and developed a lot at that time.
“And now, with Red Bull and AlphaTauri we have a great opportunity to win the championship - it’s in front of us - so we think we are moving forward and it was a great six years so far, even if progress took a bit of time.”
Time is something that we haven’t had quite as much of over the past 12 months, with COVID-19 having a major impact. After last year’s announcement that Honda would be leaving F1 at the end of 2021, it was all hands on deck to make sure we would show our strongest possible performance. And that means an upgraded power unit for this season.
“In the very original schedule before COVID hit, the power unit was meant to be brought in 2021, but then COVID happened and that had an impact on development so we delayed it until 2022. Then things changed again because we announced we’d be leaving F1 at the end of 2021, so we brought it forward again to this year.
“Obviously we stopped a bit of the development of the 2022 engine because of the COVID situation - maybe for a few months - and then we brought it forward again to 2021, therefore it was very tight in terms of the timeframe. The engineers in Sakura did a very good job.
“When you take into account the period we had available to us it was very tough, but we have piled up lots of knowledge since 2015, so I trusted the engineers that they could do it. We were sure and we knew that this power unit has more power, therefore we wanted to race with a better engine with more power, so our determination was really strong.”
With such a big effort comes some natural trepidation about how things will go when the PU finally hits the track, and with only three days of pre-season testing in Bahrain there wasn’t a great deal of margin for error. But Yamamoto-san saw three productive days and encouraging early signs.
“We have a good feeling about our testing and it was a positive pre-season for us.
“Of course we are thinking about reliability, but when we have more power then it’s always balancing with reliability. So it was good that we could see some reliability during testing, it was another positive.
“However, we don’t know what our competitors will be like in the opening round so we have to wait and see in qualifying and the race. But we are looking forward to it!”
It’s not just the power unit that will be different this season, with both Red Bull Racing and Scuderia AlphaTauri making changes to their driver line-ups, welcoming Sergio Perez and Yuki Tsunoda respectively.
“We have four different drivers who have individual strengths and features, so we are looking forward to seeing them racing,” Yamamoto-san says.
“Of course Alex [Albon] last year was a really good driver and he’s talented, however Perez is really experienced and we think this year we will have two strong drivers in the team so we think we can get good results with them.
“We are looking forward to seeing AlphaTauri’s performance as well. Pierre [Gasly] is now a really experienced and mature driver, and we think he is a really strong driver as he showed last year.
“Yuki, although he’s a rookie, we don’t feel like he’s a rookie driver - he is just focusing on racing and showing good performance.
“First of all, at this weekend’s race I would like to see Yuki finish the race! It’s a bit different to F2 but we can see his speed and strength under braking, so I think some of his overtakes will be great!
“As a Japanese company, having Yuki is very special of course. It’s really good for Japanese motor racing fans, they are really pleased. And as a Japanese company we are are also pleased and proud to have a Japanese driver on the grid, especially as it has been seven years since we saw Kamui Kobayashi so we are very excited to see Yuki racing.”
It’s not just Yamamoto-san who is looking forward to Tsunoda’s debut, with racing fans around the world keen to see what he can do. For Japanese fans it will particularly exciting, and after last season’s race at Suzuka was cancelled due to COVID-19 the hope is F1 will return in October this year.
“Of course we want to race there, and it looks like a Mercedes-type circuit up until the last time we raced there, so from a performance point of view we’d like to have a strong car in Suzuka. Then Max, Checo, Pierre and Yuki can all do a good race in front of the Japanese fans and we hope to have a nice result there.”
That’s not to say the Honda influence will disappear at the end of this season, with an agreement in place for Red Bull to take over the power unit technology and run it themselves from next year onwards. For the F1 Managing Director it is positive news, even if it will be strange to watch the PU in action in 2022.
“We have reached the overall direction with Red Bull and we are now in the phase of sorting out the details of how Honda can support the programme from next year onwards. We’re still working that part out.
“Personally I’m really glad that at least from next year they have something that we have made. As Honda we like to support Red Bull with what we can to give them a competitive power unit that means they can fight for championships. If we can give it to them then that would be really great.
“There will not be any Honda branding on the car or the engine, so it will be mixed feelings seeing the car that has a Honda power unit - the heart of the car is a Honda however it’s not really a Honda!”
But that’s a whole year away, with a championship to fight for this season before those changes are made. It would be the perfect way to sign-off from the latest era for Honda in F1, and Yamamoto-san is confident the team has identified what it needs to do to achieve a fairytale ending this year.
“Something we have to learn from last year is that we weren’t able to get many points in the first triple-header of the season. So as Honda we must not make any mistakes for those first few races especially and give Max and Checo the chance to score as many points as possible.
“Realistically it will be really difficult to win all the races or be strong on every single track, but we are communicating very well with Red Bull that certain races we think we have to win. And the other races we have to make sure we can get at least a podium - that kind of balance we have to get right and then pick up strong results in all the races.”