From the GP2 engine to the propulsion of a world champion
Honda’s official involvement in Formula 1 ended, at least for now, with Red Bull’s Max Verstappen winning the 2021 World Championship in Abu Dhabi.
Once again there is a strong feeling, shared by Honda F1 boss Masashi Yamamoto, that the Japanese manufacturer – having last left F1 at the end of 2008 to watch his team, renamed Brawn GP, take storming the 2009 title – also gone soon.
Here we tell the stories of Honda’s misery with McLaren and their subsequent rise with Red Bull through the ups and downs of their final stint in F1.
Bottom: Alonso’s 2015 test crash
The first major mistake of the McLaren-Honda mutant era was the engine manufacturer’s decision to return to F1 in 2015, a year after the start of the V6 hybrid era, putting them from a standing start behind Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault.
With a blindingly ambitious size zero concept, a deplorable winter of recurring reliability issues and lackluster pace set the tone for three years of frustration, with the nadir coming on the final day of the second of three pre-season tests in Barcelona.
Mystery still surrounds the circumstances of Fernando Alonso’s crash at Turn 3, but whatever the cause, the two-time world champion’s concussion has allowed Honda to begin their comeback without their star signing from Ferrari.
Not that Alonso would care too much, as reserve driver Kevin Magnussen didn’t start in Australia while Jenson Button finished two laps down…
High: Gasly’s breakthrough in Bahrain
— Honda Racing F1 (@HondaRacingF1) March 22, 2020
Honda’s crowning glory would ultimately come with Verstappen, but perhaps it was Pierre Gasly who was their true poster boy.
After all, it was he who, after winning the GP2 title, was sent to Super Formula Japan to establish a relationship between Red Bull and Honda in 2017, with Gasly’s first full F1 season in 2018 coinciding with the period test drive from Honda at Toro Rosso.
As McLaren quickly realized that Honda was not to blame for all its ills, Gasly finished fourth from sixth on the grid in Honda’s second race with Toro Rosso in Bahrain.
Red Bull’s decision was made and its own switch to the Honda engine for 2019 would be confirmed in a few months.
Weak: GP2 engine
Honda’s comeback obviously didn’t go to plan, but there was still a sense of pride as they returned to racing on their home circuit for the first time in nine years in September 2015.
Limited to two points from 13 races, however, Alonso was in no mood to pat Suzuka on the back – and, in his eyes, what better time to push the Japanese into action than at the race at Honda’s home?
“I went down the straights like a GP2. Embarrassing, very embarrassing,” he sighed on lap six before, on lap 27, detonating the bomb.
“GP2 engine! GP2!”
Alonso had actually pulled his pants down at a family reunion and that was the moment, that day McLaren-Honda’s great hope branded himself as an enemy within.
High: Verstappen’s victory in Austria in 2019
A podium finish in their first race together provided instant proof that if Red Bull had bet on Honda they would certainly be no worse off than with Renault’s power and would only get better.
The first F1 victory for a Honda-powered car since 2006 came, fittingly, at the Red Bull Ring, where Verstappen’s terrible start from second on the grid dropped him to eighth in the first round while creating the conditions for a good response.
With a significant tire advantage and permission to run the engine at its highest setting in the sweltering heat, Verstappen tracked down leader Charles Leclerc, making the move with three laps to go.
Despite winning its home race for the second consecutive year, Red Bull acknowledged it was Honda’s day with technical director Toyoharu Tanabe sent to the podium to join Verstappen, who proudly pointed the ‘H’ on his chest.
Bottom: The Transat
Seven weeks after Suzuka came another emblem of the McLaren-Honda era in qualifying in Brazil, where after another mid-session pit stop, Alonso decided not to return to the pits in favor of a transat.
It was the stuff the memes were made of as Alonso sat with his eyes closed and his head turned upwards to catch some rays, using his hard hat as a makeshift footrest and, at one point , turning to wink at the television cameras.
When he returned to the paddock, Alonso didn’t miss another photo opportunity, sneaking onto the podium with team-mate Button for a mock celebration. The irony, a decade after being crowned world champion for the first time at Interlagos, has not escaped anyone.
Any places Alonso would rather be? Everywhere except here.
High: Verstappen wins Brazil 2019 as Gasly overtakes Mercedes
The first glimpses of what would become of Verstappen’s rivalry with Lewis Hamilton were seen in 2019, with the latter triumphing in close battles in Monaco and Hungary.
But high altitude conditions evened out performances in Brazil, where a race two years ahead of its time took place.
Twice Verstappen passed Hamilton on Turn 1 – the second a beautifully judged swing around the outside – to claim his most comprehensive win yet, but a visible indication of Honda’s progress appeared on the final lap then as Hamilton exited the final corner side-by-side. with Gasly.
Surely Mercedes’ power would blast the tiny Toro Rosso into a direct fight?
They were inches apart as they climbed the hill towards the finish line, but Honda’s adopted son held on – almost unbelievably – to secure a one-two.
Bottom: test time in 2017
McLaren had been buoyed through a stabilized 2016 by the promise of a fresh start under new aero regulations – and a redesigned Honda engine – in 2017.
But if both sides went through a dark winter in 2015, 2017 represented a whole new low.
Strong vibrations shook the power unit to repeat stops and meant McLaren had started the season to finish more than 11 laps in a row and were now actively looking to end the relationship.
It was, as always, Alonso who delivered the immortal line midway through the second of two Barcelona Tests: “There is no reliability and there is no power.”
And the positives, Fernando?
Top: Victory at Monza
In the darker days of the McLaren partnership, Honda was heading into the Hall of Speed with great trepidation.
The engine was unable to harvest enough energy to then deploy on the longer straights, meaning the McLarens would be significantly out of power compared to the opposition beyond a particular point.
It was the prism through which Gasly’s glorious victory at Monza 2020 had to be seen from Honda’s perspective.
She owed a lot to fortune, no doubt, but Honda had won at Monza – Monza! – and thus became the first engine manufacturer to propel two different teams to Grand Prix victories in the hybrid era.
Bass: Confusion of Pouhon
Honda’s split from McLaren would be announced in Singapore in September 2017, but three weeks before the confirmation came a final moment of comedy.
Alonso was on track to crack the top 10 in Spa qualifying when he suffered a bizarre loss of power on his final effort in Q2, forcing him to abort the lap.
It soon turned out that the Honda engine, which calculated where it was on the track by the rider’s throttle inputs, was confused by Alonso’s commitment to put Pouhon flat for the first time and did not s is not deployed when it should have.
For years people had been adamant that Alonso was too fast for his machines; in Spa, it was literally the case.
High: World Champions
There was slight concern when it emerged that Honda – after announcing its withdrawal from F1 in October 2020 – would do anything for 2021 by accelerating an engine design originally planned for 2022.
Honda had been here before, aiming for the moon and landing somewhere between embarrassment and disaster. But going up against Mercedes and winning was a measure of their growth in confidence and stature.
As the season progressed, it seemed unlikely that Honda would not ultimately be worn down, but rather it was Mercedes who showed vulnerability, with Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas taking several engine-related grid penalties in the second half. of the season while Verstappen was limited to one. .
Red Bull have harnessed Honda’s potential perfectly, offering a degree of dignity and respect – reflected in that perfect tribute livery in Turkey on the weekend when F1 was due to race at Suzuka – denied by an eager and pressured McLaren team to stay relevant after years of underperformance.
If Honda gave Red Bull the power to finally fight for the title, Red Bull’s gift to Honda was simply empowerment.
In Verstappen, Honda found a fine ambassador and while the circumstances of its title triumph in Abu Dhabi left a bitter taste, it marked the top of the mountain for the manufacturer lapped on its debut by the dominant Mercedes of Hamilton in Australia 2015.
A trip, huh?