Why Red Bull Racing is hot for Honda

Michael Lamonato Columnist

By Michael Lamonato, Michael Lamonato is a Roar Expert

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    Did Max get it wrong? (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

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    Red Bull Racing announcing that it’s leaving Renault on the eve of the French company’s first home grand prix in a decade speaks volumes about their terminal partnership, but there’s more beneath the spiteful surface than might first meet the eye.

    Undoubtedly the derelict relationship between the once great pair played a major role in Red Bull Racing’s decision to walk out on its longtime engine partner in favour of Honda, with their public spats as memorable as any of their decorated successes.

    Indeed, the magnitude of those successes, if anything, seemed to make the fall only harder, for after winning four back-to-back drivers and constructors championship doubles between 2010 and 2013, Renault’s inability to master the turbo-hybrid power unit regulations from their 2014 introduction proved an insurmountable hurdle almost immediately.

    In 2015, RBR infamously shredded its Renault supply contract on the belief Mercedes was prepared to strike a deal, but not only did the Silver Arrows decline, Ferrari and Honda followed suit in quick successions, leaving the team to meekly return to Viry-Châtillon. It entered the 2016 season with Renault engines, albeit badged by watch company TAG Heuer, a charade that continues today.

    But Red Bull Racing has never stopped eyeing the exit, with only a lack of alternative supply keeping it under the French umbrella. But that all changed with McLaren and Honda’s messy break-up last year.

    Red Bull Racing's Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen at the 2018 Bahrain Grand Prix.

    Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

    It might seem counterintuitive, but the parlous competitive state McLaren found itself in, so severe that it felt it could only be remedied by divorcing Honda, its free engines and its millions of dollars of financial support – a conclusion proven flawed based on the team’s 2018 performances – was borne of the very reason Red Bull Racing has chosen to pick up the once-maligned Japanese manufacturer.

    Red Bull Racing, like McLaren before it, wants works status.

    “My opinion, and it is an opinion held by many people within our organisation, is that you have no chance of winning the world championship if you are not receiving the best engines from whoever is manufacturing your engines,” then McLaren CEO Ron Dennis said in 2014, laying down his reasoning for abandoning Mercedes.

    “Even though you have the same brand of engine, that does not mean you have the ability to optimise the engine.”

    There are many reasons for Dennis to believe that a customer power supply is inferior to works – in other words, a factory-backed – support, even with the FIA moving to ensure customers have access to identical hardware and software.

    For example, Renault can ensure its power units are designed to ideally fit its works chassis regardless of whether or not that design would be beneficial for Red Bull Racing, and the works team has greater influence over the power unit’s long-term design.

    Given fractional gains are what Formula One’s all about, this situation is unacceptable for a team with championship-winning ambitions, especially one like RBR with its class-leading chassis.

    Of course, Honda first had to prove it was up to the task of supplying competitive engines, and Red Bull Racing’s unique relationship with Toro Rosso, its development team, meant Honda was able to mount a case for the deal this season in Faenza, conveniently timed with the final year of the senior team’s contract with Renault.

    The Canadian Grand Prix was the test, with both Renault and Honda bringing major upgrades, and though both delivered, Honda’s confident progress this season has demonstrated better potential, particularly given Renault’s string of underwhelming updates in recent seasons.

    Is it a gamble? Absolutely, especially given Daniel Ricciardo is out of contract this season and the Red Bull Racing-Honda partnership is likely to take the full two years to reach competitive maturation. But it is a calculated, prudent gamble capable of reaping big rewards.

    And Red Bull Racing will back itself to deliver where McLaren failed. While there’s no doubt Honda has pulled its socks up since joining Toro Rosso, noteworthy too is that the approaches taken by the two partners appear to have been markedly different, with McLaren being demanding, perhaps to its ultimate detriment, from the outset and Toro Rosso moving to foster Honda’s growth.

    If Red Bull Racing can continue that healthy relationship, it will set itself up to reap all that McLaren had sown when it brought Honda back to the sport: a works package capable of entering the championship fight on its own terms.

    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)

    • June 20th 2018 @ 4:49am
      Anvu said | June 20th 2018 @ 4:49am | ! Report

      Honda will be champ with red bull by 2020, good decision making and congratulate to Christian Horner!!!

      • June 20th 2018 @ 10:06am
        freddieeffer said | June 20th 2018 @ 10:06am | ! Report

        Never under-estimate Honda. Secondly, if you build the right relationship with them, they deliver. They have a long history of this with racing in various 2 and 4 wheel categories, as well as in commerce. If you don’t respect them or if try to bully or dominate them, things deteriorate quickly, and no-one wins.

    • June 20th 2018 @ 5:11am
      mbp said | June 20th 2018 @ 5:11am | ! Report

      interesting times for f1.

      if honda dont get their engine reliable and ultra competive in the next few years i see the possibility of red bull exiting f1.

      same for mclaren. if things dont work with renault i see them also leaving f1 within the next 2 years.

      both manufactures may shift their resources to indy car.

      i also see the probability of fernando alonso switching permanently to do the full indy championship. to look for not just the indy 500 but the indy championship as well.

      if fernando makes a successful transition there expect to see f1 loose other talented drivers like ricardo… hulkenburg… sainz to indy as well.

      will indy become the premiere race class in the near future?

      f1 needs to reduce costs and make things simpler again so all teams are competitive otherwise they will be left with ferrarri… mercedes and maybe renault… and litle more.

    • June 20th 2018 @ 11:33am
      tommo said | June 20th 2018 @ 11:33am | ! Report

      the problem seems to stem from the issue that the “manufacturers” want to dominate F1. Problem is, and we have seen this before, if a manufacturer doesn’t win after spending massive $$ on an F1 project, it will leave and spend its money where it can get better exposure for its results. ie Toyota with WEC (stayed on after all the other manufacturers left, has finally won Le Mans) Peugeot – well PSA – in WRC with Citroen, Volkswagen chooses to remain out of F1 and instead look to sportscars…through Porsche, Audi and Lamborghini.

      Mercedes and Ferrari will resist any changes to the status quo as they are currently dominating…and Ferrari will continue with its tradition of throwing its semi-annual threat of leaving F1 if it doesn’t get its way…

      Honda will need to start showing results for its investment, otherwise, as it has done before (at least twice) it will seek to spend its money and engineer development elsewhere…

      • June 20th 2018 @ 6:14pm
        woodart said | June 20th 2018 @ 6:14pm | ! Report

        agree with you. manufacturers dont worship f1. they will walk away quickly when it suits them. and racing teams can and will as well. it was only last year when we had repeated columns about red bull pulling the plug on f1. it doesnt make much sense to circle the plughole at the back of the feild..

    • June 20th 2018 @ 6:32pm
      Steve said | June 20th 2018 @ 6:32pm | ! Report

      Interesting turn of events. Wonder how this move plays out for Daniel Ricciardo? I think this is a move designed to be championship winning when the rules change after two more seasons. Can Honda and Red Bull give Daniel a championship winning car that he desires, and quite rightly deserves, before the rule changes take place? Doubtful at best. I don’t know what Daniel is going to do now TBH. I think Red Bull Racing have quietly screwed him again with this move.

      • June 25th 2018 @ 4:00am
        Chris Love said | June 25th 2018 @ 4:00am | ! Report

        How have they screwed him with this move?

        The way I am looking at it is RedBull want to keep what are potentially the best duo in the field (short of a Hamilton/Vettel combo that will never happen).

        The latest updates to the Renault engine I think were the tipping point. If the updates had come through and the Renault engine made the RBR’s on parity or close to the Mercedes and Ferrari’s powerwise. It would immediately put RBR in the hunt for the title, at worst bag a swag of wins/podiums for the rest of the year with a real chance at winning 2019. If that’s the case RBR stick with Renault and Daniel stays with RBR.

        That didn’t happen, whilst certainly an improvement no where near enough. and the likelihood of Renault somehow getting close to parity this year is zero. The RBR chassis and two very good drivers are what is keeping them competitive and not missing out on Q3 every race.

        They stick with Renault after that update didn’t give enough and they lose Riccardo for sure. They go with Honda who could potentially surpass the Renault’s in power and it makes the decision very difficult for Riccardo. Does he jump from RBR who doesn’t favour the other driver over him (unlike when they favoured Vettel over Webber) and play second fiddle to Vettel or Hamilton and possibly watch Max competing along side him next year or 2020. Or does he stick with the team that nurtured him all the way through to this point and potentially compete 1 on 3 with Vettel Hamilton and Max next season.

        He’s shown that when his car is fast he can compete with the other 3 and win. I am sure he can see himself being in a GP and being double stacked behind Vettel or Hamilton when he could be challenging for the win. Give him a realisitic third option, whether Honda/RBR combo is realistic is up for debate and up to Daniel to decide but surely if he thinks that combo will be on pace with Mercedes and Ferrari next year then he stays put.

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