How a subtle change could make Honda a more permanent fixture in F1

An under-the-radar change in Honda’s approach to Formula 1 from 2026 could help make it a more permanent fixture in the championship, says its current motorsport boss.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B

The Japanese manufacturer recently announced an official return to F1 with Aston Martin for 2026, with it having originally intended to quit the series entirely so it could focus on electric road car development.

The U-turn marks another step in the stop-start nature of Honda in F1, with it having had four official eras so far – 1964-68, 1983-92, 2000-08 and 2015-21.

Since 2022, it has supplied engines to the Red Bull team as part of an arrangement it made with the Milton Keynes-based squad.

That history has made it obvious to question whether or not Honda will stick around this time, especially amid increasingly tough competition at the front from rival manufacturers.

However, a change in the way Honda’s F1 activities are managed last year, with it coming under the HRC banner alongside its motorbike racing activities rather than directly under the road car division, has been singled out as quite significant.

Speaking this week, HRC president Koji Watanabe said that having everything under a motorsport division should help deliver it a clearer path to continued participation.

"I can't promise that we will never quit for the future, but we want to keep doing it as long as possible," he said.

"Up until now, F1 has taken the form of a 'project' within Honda R&D, but that meant there was a problem with continuity.

Lawrence Stroll,  Toshihiro Sanbe, President and CEO Honda Motor, Koji Watanabe, President of Honda Racing Corporation, Martin Whitmarsh

Lawrence Stroll, Toshihiro Sanbe, President and CEO Honda Motor, Koji Watanabe, President of Honda Racing Corporation, Martin Whitmarsh

Photo by: / Japan

"To do F1, a project leader had to be appointed and, if we stopped F1, then all the staff involved in it, as well as the budget, would be gone.

"This time, we will be doing F1 within HRC, which is a company specialising in racing.

"HRC has been given permission by the parent company to conduct technical research on future motorsports which means that, even if we quit, we are guaranteed that the people and the budget will never go to zero.

"In addition, the state of the budget is now transparent and reported to Honda management. I think this will help improve the longevity of the project by aiding management's understanding."

Aston Martin relationship

As well as the HRC situation helping give Honda the foundations needed to stay in F1 for the long haul, the way its future partnership with Aston Martin has been framed will also be beneficial.

Watanabe added that it was important for Honda to have more of a say in things with Aston Martin than it has had up until now in its latest era with McLaren and Red Bull.

"Our rights and status as a PU supplier have been very weak so far," he explained. "We spend a lot of money in terms of development and manufacturing costs, but there was no income – or very little income.

"Therefore, when the management of the company as a whole faced challenges, it was decided that we had no choice but to stop F1.

"Up until now, I couldn’t say anything to the team management about this, as the balance of income and expenditure was very bad.

Lance Stroll, Aston Martin AMR23

Lance Stroll, Aston Martin AMR23

Photo by: Jake Grant / Motorsport Images

"However, with this contract with Aston Martin, we were able to increase our authority as a PU supplier more than before. By improving that part, we have taken a different direction."

While engine manufacturers do not directly earn any of F1’s commercial rights income, Watanabe thinks there are revenue streams that Honda can exploit.

"With motorcycles, there is income from sponsorship and, of course, income from renting out machines," he said.

"Motorcycles have been selling products and parts for a long period, and it’s definitely more [financially] balanced than four wheels.

"Automobiles must also go in that direction. Marketing and product development must be done in different ways."

One way that Honda could get some return on its F1 efforts is by supplying customer power units – an option that could be on the table for the new rules era from 2026.

Watanabe said: "Our contract with Aston Martin allows for customer supply. It's not as if we will never do it, and we may do it if necessary. But initially, we think it is better to focus on supplying only one team."

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Tetsushi Kakuda, HRC’s general manager of F1, thinks that opening up a customer deal does pose some logistical challenges.

"If there is a lot of trouble, it is better to supply to multiple teams because the more data you have, the more helpful it is as an engineer," he said.

"However, it is difficult to create a lot of new parts, and you need to have a certain number of human resources [in place]. Therefore, we want to concentrate on Aston Martin first."

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