Is Red Bull Racing ready for a works engine?

Michael Lamonato Columnist

By Michael Lamonato, Michael Lamonato is a Roar Expert


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    Formula One driver Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Red Bull Racing speaks with members of the media. (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images).

    What should have been a win-win scenario for Red Bull and Honda has turned desperately bittersweet after a series of escalating team and engine announcements at the Singapore Grand Prix.

    An increasingly complicated love triangle between McLaren, Renault and Honda – later a quadrangle including Toro Rosso – largely resolved itself with a flurry of press releases late on Friday night confirming:

    1. Renault will not supply power units to Toro Rosso in 2018;
    2. McLaren and Honda will end their partnership at the end of the season;
    3. Renault will supply power units to McLaren in 2018; and
    4. Carlos Sainz will be loaned from Toro Rosso to Renault in 2018.

    It seemed like an optimal outcome for everyone – McLaren ditches Honda, Honda stays in Formula One, Carlos Sainz gets a more competitive car by switching to a team that has sought his services for more than a year and Renault adds a high-end brand to its portfolio.

    Even Toro Rosso, who one could say is getting a raw deal by adopting the worst power unit on the grid, has something to gain – Toro Rosso is of course a Red Bull-owned team, and in the event Honda can turn its reliability and performance around, both STR and Red Bull Racing will have access to works-status engine supplies.

    Better yet, with Red Bull Racing holding a Renault supply contract, if Honda were unable to raise its game to a race-winning standard, the team could simply opt to stick with its current set-up, suboptimal though it believes it to be.

    But, like all good Formula One stories, there was a twist: Renault, sensing an opportunity to escape from its long-term Red Bull relationship, turned around and told the team that it does not intend to make its power units available to it from 2019.

    The ingenious plan to give Red Bull Racing a choice between the best of both worlds had crumbled.

    One would think that an 11-year partnership would lead to a more amicable conclusion, but that Renault appears to have blindsided its longest serving customer is illustrative.

    Red Bull Racing and Renault have had a rocky relationship at best in recent times. Despite the pair winning four consecutive constructors championships in 2010–13, the first of which came in the collaboration’s fourth season, the souring of the relationship was rapid from 2014, when the current hybrid engine regulations were introduced.

    There is no doubt that Renault has struggled during this time as the field’s third-best power unit, but until this season Ferrari similarly struggled to master the engine regulations and, anyway, in 2014 and 2016 Red Bull Racing finished second in the constructors standings, albeit a long way behind Mercedes.

    The sniping has been fierce.

    Red Bull boss Dietrich Matescitz infamously told Speedweek in 2015 that, “Besides taking our time and money [Renault] have destroyed our enjoyment and motivation, because no driver and no chassis in this world can compensate for this horsepower deficit”.

    Renault hit back, calling Red Bull a “high maintenance” customer and demanding more respect for its motor racing history and its past successes, including those achieved together.

    The very public spat resulted in Red Bull tearing up its supply contracts for Red Bull Racing and Toro Rosso without alternatives, and when all three other manufacturers rejected its requests for power it was forced to meekly return to Renault to beg for engines.

    Daniel Ricciardo, Lewis Hamilton and Sergio Perez on the Monaco podium

    (Red Bull Content Pool)

    Red Bull Racing now races with TAG Heuer-badged Renault engines while Toro Rosso, after using year-old Ferrari engines for a season, uses unbranded Renault power.

    Even today the animosity continues, with barbs frequently exchanged – admittedly more often from the Red Bull end of the relationship – and tense joint press conferences offering a window into how icy the relationship has turned.

    The partnership has obviously proved beyond repair, and Renault has seized its opportunity to escape from it on its own terms.

    The tale begs the question: if Red Bull was unable to deal with the temperamental and lukewarm Renault power units, will it be able to cope with the next-level unreliability and underperformance of the Honda engines should the Japanese company struggle to improve?

    “I feel that we are going to have a very good season, a good relationship between Honda and Toro Rosso,” said Masashi Yamamoto, Honda’s motorsport general manager, after the announcement. “I believe that Toro Rosso is a pure racing team. The spirit of Toro Rosso is very similar to the spirit of Honda.”

    The weight of history suggests this might not be the case.

    Honda may have a single year’s grace in the low-pressure environment of Toro Rosso, but any belief that its new relationship with the notoriously demanding Red Bull company will be any smoother than its experiences with McLaren seems destined to go up in smoke as quickly as its engines have this season.

    Michael Lamonato
    Michael Lamonato

    Michael is one-third of F1 podcast Box of Neutrals, as heard weekly on ABC Grandstand Digital nationwide. Though he's been part of the F1's travelling press room since 2012, people seem more interested in the time he was sick in a kart - but don't ask about that, follow him on Twitter instead @MichaelLamonato.

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    The Crowd Says (7)

    • September 19th 2017 @ 6:23pm
      Simoc said | September 19th 2017 @ 6:23pm | ! Report

      But in the unlikely event that the Honda engine turns out to be the best in 2018 Danny Kvyat will be the happiest camper in F1.
      Given the time lapse now since the new engine, manufacturers should be starting to get up to speed on the technology.

      While Hamilton is a great driver he has had an armchair ride compared to every other great F1 driver.

      • Columnist

        September 20th 2017 @ 9:24am
        Michael Lamonato said | September 20th 2017 @ 9:24am | ! Report

        Kvyat for 2018 world champion? What a world!

        I think Honda’s circumstances are worth considering in why the company is doing so poorly compared to everyone else. During its first two seasons — years two and three of the regulations — it was using a McLaren-dictated ‘size zero’ concept. It started coming good in 2016 (sixth in the championship, 76 points), but it had limited potential, so this year the concept was reimagined, meaning Honda is essentially back at year one when everyone else is in year four. Honda’s progress over the next 24 months will be interesting.

        Hamilton has had a relatively easy ride to some of his titles. It’s fair to say that in two of his championship years he had little competition from his teammate, and in one of those years there was no competition from another team, either. But then you could also say Michael Schumacher faced limited competition in many of his seasons, and likewise Sebastian Vettel cruised to two of his world titles. It’s just the nature of F1, I suppose.

        • September 21st 2017 @ 8:28am
          CG555 said | September 21st 2017 @ 8:28am | ! Report

          More like year 7 or 8. All the years the other manufacturers were developing these complex power plants out of the public’s eye and without a token system limiting them to what could be done. Honda is much more than 3 years behind and when that is actually taken into account, for anyone to bad mouth them is just obnoxious banter. Also take into account that Honda didn’t plan to re-enter F1 until 2016, McLaren didn’t want to pay for engines as Mercedes said they would have to start doing from 2015. They threw their toys out of the pram as they felt they are better than being a customer and manufacturers should instead feel blessed to be servicing McL. So they forced Honda in a full year early and as you said hamstrung them with the size zero nonsense for 2 years. People just like to keep horse-blinders on and not really look at everything, just what is right in front of their noses.

    • September 19th 2017 @ 7:12pm
      Ryan said | September 19th 2017 @ 7:12pm | ! Report

      This is Alonso’s plan so this plan will fail. Mclaren will have done all the hard yards and now Honda will improve and be handed to Red Bull and it will be funny.

      • Columnist

        September 20th 2017 @ 9:25am
        Michael Lamonato said | September 20th 2017 @ 9:25am | ! Report

        This is the best logic. What odds Toro Rosso sets the fastest times throughout 2018 preseason testing?

        • September 20th 2017 @ 4:28pm
          steve said | September 20th 2017 @ 4:28pm | ! Report

          It would not surprise at all if Red Bull and Honda throw some dollars at development and we see the Honda engine take a big step forward throughout next season and then see both Red Bull outfits powered by a much improved Honda power plant in 2019.

          • September 21st 2017 @ 8:31am
            CG555 said | September 21st 2017 @ 8:31am | ! Report

            Honda was already essentially bankrolling McL for the past 3 seasons. Title sponsor, free engines and paying all of Alonso’s salary. So they have plenty of excess money just eliminating the need to pay Alonso 30 million/season to throw at the project and I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised that behind the scenes Mr. Newey has his hands on the ’18 TRH chassis.

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