Honda shocks F1, says it will quit the sport after 2021

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oh no, not again? —

The news is a serious blow to the Red Bull Racing and Alpha Tauri teams.


  • Pierre Gasly stands on his Alpha Tauri racing car after winning the 2020 Italian Grand Prix. So far it is Honda’s second F1 win of the year.


    Red Bull

  • In 1964, Honda’s first F1 experience began with this, the RA271.

  • Here we see Richie Ginther racing for Honda in the 1965 British Grand Prix.


    Victor Blackman/Express/Getty Images

  • Honda partnered with the Williams team from 1983-1987 with a good deal of success—23 wins in 75 races.


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  • In 1987, the Lotus team secured the use of Honda engines, in part because of the star power of one of its drivers, Ayrton Senna. It won twice in 32 races between 1987-88.


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  • In 1988, Honda switched from Williams to McLaren (the Lotus deal would continue through this year as well). 1988 was almost a perfect season for McLaren Honda, which scored 15 pole positions and 15 wins from 16 races. Here, Alain Prost celebrates as he wins the Australian Grand Prix.


    Tony Feder /Allsport/Getty Images

  • In 1989, the regulations changed and Honda swapped its V6 turbo for a naturally aspirated 3.5L V10. The results were 10 wins and 15 pole positions that year. In total, McLaren won 44 times in 80 races during the partnership.


    DOMINIQUE FAGET,MICHEL GANGNE,GERARD JULIEN,PASCAL PAVANI/AFP via Getty Images

  • From 1992 until 2000, Honda was represented in F1 by Mugen-Honda. It found its best success during this period with the Jordan team, with four wins.


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  • Honda returned to F1 in 2000 as engine partner for the British American Racing team. Jacques Villeneuve is seen here in the 2002 German Grand Prix.


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  • In 2006, Honda took over BAR to form the Honda Racing F1 team.


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  • During this period, it also supported the Super Aguri team—this photo is from the 2007 Malaysian Grand Prix and shows Super Aguri’s Takuma Sato and Honda Racing’s Jenson Button fighting for a corner. Notice the ghastly livery on the Honda, part of a greenwashing Earthdreams initiative that felt very out of place with F1 at a time when the sport was not at all interested in being eco-conscious. (Seriously, the rules resulted in cars driving around trying to burn as much fuel as possible before conducting a fast lap in qualifying. It was nonsensical.)


    Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

  • The nadir for Honda Racing F1 was the 2008 season, when it finished 9th in the championship, exiting the sport at the end of the year. The car was so obviously, diabolically bad that the team abandoned development of it by mid-season to concentrate on the 2009 car. By year’s end, Honda was out, and yet that car was so good it won the 2009 championships with the last minute addition of Mercedes engines.


    Koji Watanabe/Getty Images

  • In 2015, Honda returned to F1, again partnering with McLaren. It did not go very well. Here, we see Fernando Alonso experiencing an engine failure during a practice session for the 2015 Brazilian Grand Prix.


    Clive Mason/Getty Images

  • Alonso was highly critical of Honda in public. This did not go down well with the very face-conscious Japanese company.


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  • By 2017, McLaren was pretty brutally rude about Honda as well, telling any and all listeners that the company had the best chassis on the grid but the worst engine. When the team switched to Renault engines the following year, the rest of us realized McLaren was full of it and “the best chassis on the grid” was a dog.


    Robert Szaniszló/NurPhoto via Getty Images

  • The following year, McLaren and Toro Rosso switched engine suppliers. And lo and behold, it turned out that the Honda powertrain was actually pretty good.


    Javier Martinez de la Puente/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

  • The switch to Toro Rosso was a prelude to supplying that team’s big brother, Red Bull Racing, in 2019. Young phenom Max Verstappen scored four race wins and two pole positions that year.


    Mark Thompson/Getty Images

  • Honda Motorsports General Manager Masashi Yamamoto, Operating Officer of Honda F1 Katsuhide Moriyama, Red Bull Racing Team Principal Christian Horner, CEO of Honda Takahiro Hachigo, Red Bull Racing Team Consultant Dr. Helmut Marko, and Executive Vice President of Honda Seiji Kuraishi pose for a photo after the F1 Grand Prix of Australia at Melbourne Grand Prix Circuit on March 17, 2019 in Melbourne, Australia.


    Mark Thompson/Getty Images

On Friday morning in Tokyo, the Honda Motor Company shocked the world of Formula 1 by announcing it has decided to leave the sport at the end of 2021. The decision was explained in a speech by Honda President and CEO Takahiro Hachigo:

At this time, Honda made a decision to further accelerate such initiatives and strive for “the realization of carbon neutrality by 2050” in order to realize a sustainable society. To this end, our current goal of “electrifying two-thirds of our global automobile unit sales in 2030” will become a checkpoint we must pass before we get to the 2050 goal, and therefore we must further accelerate the introduction of our carbon-free technologies.

Instead of spending $164 million (€140 million) a year on an F1 engine program, Honda will instead devote those resources to carbon-free technology for road cars, including battery and fuel cell electric vehicles. A Honda Formula E program has already been ruled out, but we believe the IndyCar program will continue unchanged, given that it is funded by the American Honda Motor Company.

By my count, this is the fifth time that the Japanese automaker has quit F1; it contested the sport as a manufacturer of its own car and engine between 1964-1968 and from 2006-2008 and as just an engine supplier to other teams in the 1980s, 2000s, and then again since 2015.

It was during the 1980s and 1990s that it found the greatest success. Honda engines racked up 77 wins, 194 podiums, and contributed to five World Drivers’ Championships and six World Constructor’s Championships for legendary names like Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, and Nigel Mansell and legendary teams like Lotus, Williams, and McLaren.

But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. When the company took over the British American Racing team to rebrand it as Honda Racing F1 in 2006, the result was a sharp decline in the team’s fortunes that saw the automaker leave the sport two years later in the face of a global financial crisis. Ironically, the following year, the same team—now being run on a shoestring as an independent using Mercedes engines—won the WDC and WCC as Brawn GP, which the year after became Mercedes-AMG F1, which has utterly dominated F1 in the hybrid era.

Honda’s most recent dalliance with Formula 1 began a year after the start of that era, when in 2015 it reentered the sport as an engine supplier to McLaren. The two organizations saw great success during their 1988-1992 partnership, but in the 21st century things turned out very different, and the pair split with much acrimony during 2017.

However, things started to look promising the following year, when Toro Rosso (now Alpha Tauri)—one of the two teams owned by the energy drink maker Red Bull—swapped engine suppliers. In 2019, Red Bull Racing (yes, the other of those two teams) also switched to Honda and scored four wins for its trouble, the first for a Honda-powered car since 1992’s Australian Grand Prix. So far in the 2020 season, Honda has notched up two wins, the most recent courtesy of Pierre Gasly’s performance in the Alpha Tauri at Monza in Italy a few weeks ago.

Where does Red Bull go from here?

The decision will have severe consequences for Red Bull, which now needs to find a new engine supply for two teams for 2022. Currently, the only other engine providers in F1 are Mercedes, Ferrari, and Renault, and the odds of a new engine supplier designing and building one of F1’s hideously expensive and complicated hybrid powertrains for Red Bull in the 18 months between now and the 2022 season seem extremely remote.

As viewers of Netflix’s Drive to Survive can attest, Red Bull and Renault fell out almost as acrimoniously in 2018 as McLaren and Honda a year earlier—Red Bull went as far as to badge its Renault engines as TAG Heuers to downplay the association. A switch to Ferrari is probably also undesirable; in 2020, it and its two customer teams are struggling with an extremely uncompetitive powertrain after Ferrari was caught cheating in some still-unspecified manner last season.

A Mercedes deal with Red Bull also seems unlikely given how much more competitive that would make the Red Bull team. Then again, Mercedes will be supplying a resurgent McLaren with engines from 2021 and is probably Red Bull’s preferred option, assuming the Mercedes AMG High Performance Powertrains factory in Brixworth, UK, has the capacity to supply two more teams.

Listing image by Red Bull

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