Honda mulls formal F1 return prior to exit

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in – Honda president admits keeping 'close eye' on F1

By PH Staff / Monday, 20 February 2023 / Loading comments

When it comes to F1, Honda seemingly can’t help itself. The tale of its exit from the sport in 2008 is an oft-repeated story of nearly-but-not-quite (even though the subsequent Brawn team famously won with Mercedes engines) but the firm is a perennial returnee to the grid – and it’s easy to see why. The pinnacle of motorsport is also the ultimate showcase for engineering excellence, and Honda prides itself as one of the world’s foremost experts in turning petrol from dead dinosaur into prodigious speed. And while its record as a race team might fall someway short of greatness, its reputation as an engine-builder is mightily impressive. 

Consequently, news that it might yet reappear in the pit lane after its deal with Red Bull runs its course is worthy of front-page news (well, sort of). How do we know this? Because none other than its President, Koji Watanabe, remarked on the possibility when asked about it at a press conference earlier today. “For the time being, we would like to keep a close eye on where F1 is going and just see how things go,” he said. “We don’t have any concrete decisions on whether we will be going back.”

However, while it might not be ‘concrete’ yet (and despite the Honda name returning to Red Bull cars this season) the firm has already indicated its interest by registering as a ‘power unit’ manufacturer for the new regulations that kick off in 2026 – the regulations that have already seen Mercedes, Ferrari, Red Bull (i.e. Ford), Alpine and Audi signal their intention to build engines for a new hybrid era. The Japanese firm just hasn’t confirmed whether or not it will make good on that impulse – partly, you suspect, because the regulations remain a work in progress.

“We are curious about where F1 is going and how is that going to look with more electrification happening,” continued Watanabe, sagely. The reasons for what seems a likely change of heart are not hard to fathom. Honda has previously said it was planning on leaving F1 because it wanted to spend more time and resources on carbon-neutral tech – but in the intervening years the changes set to occur in 2026 have become more attractive to the manufacturer: “we think F1’s future direction is in line with our target. That is why we have decided to register as a manufacturer of a power-unit.”

Of course, the other thing that’s happened is that the sport has enjoyed a massive popularity surge – driven by a number of factors – that has reinvigorated its status as the place to be. The future involvement of Volkswagen (via Audi) and Ford (via Red Bull) is hugely significant, and while Honda can point to considerable recent success with Red Bull, it would likely consider any additional triumph beyond 2026 an even weightier feather in its corporate cap, given the proximity of close rivals. 

Moreover, it is unlikely to want for new partners. “After we made the registration, we have been contacted by multiple F1 teams,” noted Watanabe. In fact, the BBC is apparently convinced that McLaren is already among those who leaped for the phone. Aston Martin and Williams are also among those teams without a dance partner, and while placing any bets would be foolhardy (to say the least) at this impossibly early stage, Honda’s record of 89 victories and 223 podiums as an engine builder does rather speak for itself. Of course, it’s all speculation at the moment anyway with a final decision pending. “But, from the perspective of technological development, we think that knowing that this is being part of F1 is going to help us with technological development. So that is where we are.” Not protesting too much, in other words.

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