From McLaren, to Scuderia Toro Rosso, and now Red Bull Racing, the fourth Honda era in Formula 1 comes to a close after this weekend’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
It has been a rollercoaster journey, full of ups and downs that encapsulate the emotions that come with motorsport, and we aim to sign off in style as we fight for both championships at the Yas Marina Circuit.
As the season reaches its thrilling climax, F1 Managing Director Masashi Yamamoto reflects on just how far we’ve come since a challenging start to this latest chapter of the Honda F1 story, and how even the toughest times set the foundations for this year’s title battle.
“All the fundamental basis we have now that allows us to fight for the championship was built up in the McLaren days, so we achieved a lot of things there,” Yamamoto-san says, “It was just a shame that we respected each other too much and it meant it didn’t really work well, because we respected them and they respected us but it didn’t quite click. But we learned many things and that learning has accelerated our development in this Red Bull era.”
It’s easy for outsiders to write-off the McLaren partnership as a failure, but both sides were committed to success, and there were highlights that still stand out to this day.
“My best memory was 2017 and the Spanish Grand Prix qualifying. I got goosebumps. It was when got our first Q3 result that year, seventh place, it was a great performance from Fernando [Alonso]. I felt how much of a great driver Fernando is at that time. That was probably the best memory.
“The next one I’m not sure if it was positive or negative! But obviously we learned that the MGU-H technology is really hard and difficult. We learned a lot about it during the McLaren days, which can be seen as a positive as we got something out of it. It was tough but we learned many things.”
When the McLaren partnership came to an end, some expected Honda to walk away. But we’d returned to F1 to win, and Toro Rosso provided the perfect collaboration to prove we had the potential to achieve our aims.
“Although we learned many things from McLaren, certain things we had to reset and start from zero in 2018,” Yamamoto-san recalls. "So it was ideal to start with Toro Rosso because they’re not so big. Immediately after the start of the partnership we scored the fourth place in Bahrain - in just the second race - and that gave us so much confidence about what we can do as Honda by ourselves, and that boosted the project a lot. It was the right timing to start, and it was the right partner.
“Of course we wanted to partner with Red Bull because they are a very good team, but that does not mean that it was planned from the beginning. Helmut [Marko] told me they would decide after seeing the result with Toro Rosso, so that means those results in 2018 were really important for us. It was really good to see us deliver under that pressure.”
Midway through that encouraging 2018 season, the contract was signed to expand the partnership to include Red Bull Racing, and the perfect syngergy was found between two organisations completely focused on winning.
“In some ways it was quite natural, because Red Bull always try to win. They are really eager to win and at Honda we have the same philosophy - whenever we participate in racing we have to win. So the view was the same, therefore the communication was accelerated very soon and we had very good communication that built up the relationship quickly.”
When thinking of a moment that he really felt confident that we would achieve great things with Red Bull, Yamamoto-san admits it wasn’t a particular result or on-track performance. In fact it was the faith and confidence shown by the team when it committed to us in the first place.
“It was quite early on actually. The first time I felt like that was when Helmut Marko said ‘let’s sign the contract’ so it was even before the team started. Before that we had many discussions about how to make a winning team, and that gave me confidence that both teams were going in the same direction.
“For me the first podium with Red Bull in Australia, the first race together, was the on-track highlight of our time together so far. I was really happy that we could achieve such a result with them, and it was the result that gave me true confidence that it was the right decision and we can win together with this team.
“I actually expected the first win. On Friday in Austria I told my team that we were going to win that race, so we had prepared on the Friday actually, even after Max’s crash in practice. In terms of Austria there was no surprise. Of course I was happy but I knew it was coming, whereas in Australia we couldn’t really expect to be on the podium so that was a really great moment.”
That first win led to tears from Honda employees being caught on camera, as just how much an F1 victory meant to the team came flooding out.
“Winning is different,” Yamamoto-san admits. But that win was built on the tough times that allowed us to learn and improve as quickly as possible.
“2017 in Bahrain was the toughest moment for us as Honda. Many MGU-H failures made it tough. Looking back now, I’m always thinking positively so that was a moment we learned a lot, even if some people would rather not remember it!
“With Red Bull I can’t really think of much that was particularly challenging. Compared to McLaren it was far less tough, but 2020 was a bit of a halting of our momentum. We couldn’t really advance, after we won three races in 2019 we won just two the next year. But still even in that moment we had a strong relationship with Red Bull Racing and trusted each other so it was OK.”
Building on all of those experiences is what has brought us to the point we find ourselves in today. One race remains in Honda’s latest F1 era, and it represents a winner-takes-all battle for the drivers’ championship, not that Yamamoto-san admits he is longing to win to have a title to show for all of the hard work that has gone before.
“For me personally it has been six years, but after the seven years we’ve had, I’m really happy to be involved with this successful project. For Honda and our fans it’s a really positive thing that we can fight for the championship. So we’d really like to win the championship in the end.
“I’m very proud and really want to thank all of our engineers that have worked so hard on the R&D side. It is obviously great that we are still fighting for both championships right to the end of this 2021 season, and the management side has now seen how much Honda can do, how capable we are. I’m really impressed and want to thank everyone for the efforts they have made.”
But the Honda story won’t stop after this weekend. Our focus is not only on immediate success, but leaving both Red Bull and AlphaTauri with the best possible power unit to run in 2022 as we support the transfer of the technology to Red Bull Powertrains.
“The biggest and most important thing is that we win the championship this year, but it is also very important for us that Red Bull can fight for the championship next year as well. Then the fans, the teams and we as Honda can be very happy, so it is very important and we are focusing on that as well.”
However this chapter ends, there is one final message Yamamoto-san wants to deliver, and it isn’t to the team, or the drivers, but to you.
“We have huge thanks and massive appreciation for our fans. We have been through tough periods but they have always supported us and that gave us so much power. It’s not only about Honda, but the whole of motorsport is powered by fan support, so for that we thank the motorsport fans very much.”