How Honda's F1 withdrawal turbo-charged its title success

Honda's partnership with Red Bull has become one of the most successful in Formula 1 history.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB19

With Max Verstappen set to land his third consecutive F1 drivers' crown this year, as well as a constructors' title double for Red Bull, there is no hint yet of the partnership's stunning form hitting the buffers.

But there is a certain irony to the fact that Honda's latest golden era in F1 has only come in the wake of it originally announcing back in 2020 that it would be withdrawing from F1 at the end of the following season.

That shock decision could have marked the death knell of Red Bull's ambitions at the time, just as the Honda project appeared to be gathering momentum following its disastrous early hybrid era years with McLaren.

But in a fascinating admission ahead of its home Japanese GP, it has emerged that, rather than quitting being a negative thing for the partnership, Honda's decision was actually one of the elements that have made it so successful since.

It actually triggered an acceleration of its development that helped produce better power units for Red Bull, which will partner with Ford on powertrains from 2026 while Honda returns in a formal capacity with Aston Martin.

PLUS: The future high-stakes F1 battle that could transform the pecking order

Reflecting on the basis of the products that have helped Red Bull over recent years, Honda's F1 project leader Tetsushi Kakuda explained how the withdrawal announcement prompted a change in the original intention of introducing a new power unit and battery configuration only for 2022.

"In response to the company's decision to withdraw from 2022, we decided to launch the new PU ahead of schedule in 2021," he said.

Even before the Honda announcement was made public in October 2020, Kakuda's team had already consulted Red Bull and AlphaTauri about the potential change of plans for 2021.

Tetsushi Kakuda, HRC

Tetsushi Kakuda, HRC

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

"They took a positive view and decided to introduce it," he said. "Even though both teams did not know on its [the engine's] drawing at that point, they accepted us. So, we were very grateful for their flexibility.

"We wanted to do it no matter what, and I believe we were able to contribute to winning the championship. Then we used this '21 specification as the base for the '22 specification, but we had to go through a lot of challenges."

Kakuda explained that the impetus for the push was based on engineering pride – in that Honda's personnel did not want to leave Red Bull running an uncompetitive power unit for the remainder of the current rules era.

"In the first place, we were set to leave from 2022 and Red Bull would use it [the engines] after that," he said. "Initially the condition we required was that we only had to comply with new regulations, but our engineering spirit was rekindled here.

"We didn't want to create a situation where what we have left at Honda is not competitive for many years during the engine freeze era. So we decided to do everything in our power in order to gain competitiveness."

As well as committing to bring forward planned developments into 2021, Honda also totally revamped its ICE internals for 2022 – delivering even more performance for Red Bull as it began its dominance of the current ground effect era.

Kakuda has no doubts that the extra effort Honda's engineers made, which had to be completed without extra resources, was worth it – even if some factions within the Japanese manufacturer were sceptical.

"At the beginning, there was someone who said: 'Why do we have to put so much effort in something Honda won't use?'" he said. "But in the end, we were all able to accomplish the job."

Previous article How McLaren has revamped its F1 team to become a contender again
Next article F1 drivers question tyre blanket ban sustainability claims