The "incompatibility" that drove Aston and Honda F1 deal

Aston Martin’s decision to hook up with Honda is perhaps Lawrence Stroll’s boldest move yet since the highly ambitious Canadian set his sights on winning the Formula 1 world championship.

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It addresses the conundrum of having all the benefits of a works engine without having to build one from scratch under the Aston name, while also taking away the necessity to share a power unit and other associated parts with a key rival.

It’s that reliance on a supplier who also wants to beat you on track that, in the words of Aston Martin Performance Technologies CEO Martin Whitmarsh, creates an “incompatibility”.

The Honda deal is one of the final pieces of the puzzle that has gradually been falling into place since Stroll took control of 'Team Silverstone' in the summer of 2018. He's hired the best engineers he could get, signed Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso, and invested in a new factory and windtunnel. Now he's addressed the power unit issue.

On the face of it, Stroll appears to have the perfect set-up with his partnership with Mercedes, a team whose parent also owns a significant stake in the Aston Martin Lagonda road car company. A PU, gearbox and rear suspension package sourced from a winning outfit is a handy starting point, allowing the team to focus on everything else.

That philosophy worked well from the early days of Force India (initially with a gearbox and extra input from McLaren), through the Racing Point period, and into the current Aston Martin era. At times over those years the team had the fourth best car on the grid, but it always lagged behind the major players.

This year Aston made such a big step that the AMR23 has often been the second best car, ahead of Mercedes and Ferrari. That form might suggest that the next step of beating Red Bull and winning races and titles with a Mercedes customer package is within the team’s grasp.

Indeed, there may well be further forward progress over the last two seasons of the current arrangement prior to Honda’s arrival in 2026.

Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin AMR23

Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin AMR23

Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images

However, Mercedes and Ferrari have underperformed in 2023, and Aston – which has not put a foot wrong – has, arguably, been flattered to some degree. To beat both those squads and Red Bull on merit and consistently, the team has had to find a way to break free from Mercedes and find a new path, and for example no longer be constrained by the architecture of someone else's gearbox and suspension.

The desire to be in charge of your own destiny in terms of power unit supply has been long been espoused by teams. In late 2014, McLaren boss Ron Dennis gave an intriguing insight into his thinking at that time. McLaren was using Mercedes hybrid engines for a single interim season before the move to Honda, and Dennis had watched with frustration as the works team dominated.

He claimed that McLaren had not had the chance to use the Brixworth power unit to its full advantage because of a lack of access to data, and he even hinted that the team had not had “the best engines”. His words made it clear that the team’s two-decade partnership with Mercedes was under serious strain as it edged towards its conclusion.

“My opinion, an opinion held by many people in our organisation, is that you have no chance of winning a world championship if you are not receiving the best engines from whoever is manufacturing your engines,” he said.

“A modern grand prix engine in this moment in time is not just about sheer power, it’s about how you harvest the energy, it’s about how you store the energy, and effectively if you don’t have control of that process – meaning access to source code – then you are not going to be able to stabilise your car in the entry to corners, etcetera, and you lose lots of lap time.

“Even though you have the same brand of engine that does not mean you have the ability to optimise the engine. So you’ve got to start by putting yourself in a position where you have the best engine available.

“That’s what we’ve done for the approaching years. We had a great partnership with Mercedes, but we intend to hit the ground running with Honda.”

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff was unimpressed by Dennis’s accusations. Since then, the regulations have become much stricter, and customer engines have to be identical to, and run to the same parameters as, those of the associated works team. Thus the suspicion that you’re not getting equal equipment is even less valid than it was then.

Dennis’s argument in favour of a works deal would perhaps have carried more weight if he’d focused less on pure performance and more on the obvious benefit of having a dedicated partner – the ability to fully integrate your chassis and engine packages.

And yet McLaren and Honda failed to do that during their disastrous liaison in 2015-2017, with poor communications exacerbating the weaknesses in their respective technical offerings.

Max Verstappen driving a Honda-powered Red Bull in 2021

Max Verstappen driving a Honda-powered Red Bull in 2021

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

When it fell apart and the Japanese manufacturer was dumped by the Woking outfit, Red Bull was only too pleased to step in.

Christian Horner also knew all about the drawbacks of being an engine customer, and he often gave the impression that RBR had won world championships despite, rather than because of, its former engine supplier Renault.

In contrast, Red Bull and Honda quickly forged an effective and open technical partnership, one that could still achieve a lot more by the end of 2025.

After that, Red Bull will be fully in charge of its own destiny with its own Ford-backed power unit, and Aston Martin will reap the benefits of full works Honda support and all that entails.

“Mercedes have been great partners for the team,” says Whitmarsh. “And they remain that. They're in it to win. And clearly, we're here to win as well. So ultimately, there is some incompatibility in those two missions. And that's why we've taken the decision.

“I think the first and obvious example was, we currently share a windtunnel with them. And yet, we're having to spend a huge amount of money to build our own windtunnel, which is only four or five miles from the quite adequate one that we use.

“But the nature of F1 is if you want to win, it means beating Mercedes and it's extremely difficult to beat an organisation as good as Mercedes if you're reliant on them for intellectual property, facilities, components.

“Team Silverstone, as you know, has got a great tradition of delivering big bang for small bucks. But we're in a different position now, the Aston Martin brand, the ambition of Lawrence Stroll, and now great partners like Honda, we are here to win.

"And therefore, you've got to have the complete integration of facilities and process and approach.”

Whitmarsh says the time has come for Aston to step out of Mercedes' shadow

Whitmarsh says the time has come for Aston to step out of Mercedes' shadow

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

Whitmarsh suggests that close co-operation between the PU and chassis worlds will become more important than ever under the next set of regulations.

“The 2026 technical regulations I think are really going to demand a very, very substantial, full integration,” he says. “And not just the sort of physical integration of components, but the operational integration to be able to deliver and to win, to a much greater extent.

“In my view, it is very, very difficult to consistently win championships without a full works relationship, which is why we've made this decision, and why we're delighted to have a fantastic partner like Honda.”

A key step now for Aston is to establish its own gearbox design and build facility ahead of the switch to Honda, something that it hasn’t had in-house for many years, thanks to the supply deals with McLaren and latterly Mercedes.

Sauber has had to make a similar move – after years of using Ferrari units it is now building its own in preparation for the transition to Audi in 2026.

“The 2026 chassis regulations have not been finalised,” says Whitmarsh when asked about the gearbox issue. “And I'm hoping that sanity will prevail. And that we'll choose to simplify the very complicated transmissions. But we're recruiting the people at the moment, we're facing that challenge that you've highlighted.

“We have a great partnership currently. And we have great components and systems provided to us. But this is about the growing up of this team. You set out to win in F1, that means beating existing partners. And that means in order to do that, we've got to be independent.

Honda with Astion Martin Racing F1 Team

Honda with Astion Martin Racing F1 Team

Photo by: Aston Martin Racing

“We're building great, great facilities, and we're progressively pulling away from our dependence upon Mercedes-Benz and that's no reflection on them. They've done a fantastic job for us, they continue to do a great job for us. But clearly, we're here to beat them. And that means we've got to be self-reliant.”

A works partnership relies on good communication to work successfully. Whitmarsh’s knowledge of Honda goes back to 1989 and the halcyon days of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost.

Later, he was the man who persuaded the Japanese manufacturer to rejoin McLaren for the hybrid era, although he had left the team before the partnership got underway.

That relationship collapsed in large part because of poor communications and the early onset of a blame culture. Whitmarsh observed how it unfolded as a well-connected outsider, and he won’t let Aston make the same mistakes.

“I think that you've got to have a respectful partnership,” he says. “I think you've got to listen to one another, and make sure that you get the right balance. Inevitably, when you're designing the chassis and a PU there are various trade-offs. I think Honda is a very polite and correct and thorough partner.

“I think it's quite easy for a European racing culture to not listen as much as it ought and should do during those discussions. I'm confident that we as a team, we're a new and growing team with big ambitions that I think hopefully already starting to listen, as we embark on this partnership.

“I've obviously visited Sakura in the in the run up to this announcement, and I'm very confident that Honda has incredible facilities, great passion, and great engineers.”

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