Honda dropped a bomb last week when it announced that it would be leaving the Formula One paddock after the 2021 season. And while we talked about what Honda’s plans were for the future (spoiler: it’s electrification), we need to have a pretty serious chat about what this means for Red Bull Racing, F1, and racing as a whole.
With the exception of Ferrari, engine manufacturers come and go in Formula One. Some go away for good. Others go away only to come back after a few years to reevaluate their priorities. It’s tough to make any predictions about Honda’s path, but I’ll be honest: it doesn’t sound like it’s coming back to F1. At least not any time soon.
That leaves three engine manufacturers in F1: Ferrari, Mercedes, and Renault. Each of those three manufacturers also have their own works F1 team. Basically, that means that Renault is going to supply its best engines to Renault, Mercedes to Mercedes, and Ferrari to Ferrari. Everyone else is essentially a customer, which isn’t necessarily a terrible situation to be in. Even though Racing Point is a Mercedes-powered car, it’s probably going to be looked at after Mercedes-AMG Petronas gets its own house in order.
Right now, only Red Bull Racing and its junior team, AlphaTauri, run Honda engines. That meant they were getting all of Honda’s attention for 2020.
Red Bull Racing has claimed that it will be “well equipped” to deal with Honda’s departure. The team itself isn’t going anywhere, since it signed F1's latest Concorde Agreement and, in turn, signed itself up for at least five more years of competition. And there’s the hope that Red Bull will be able to negotiate a deal with a successful engine manufacturer on its own.
As you can imagine, engine manufacturers that also run works teams aren’t exactly chomping at the bit to hand over its technology to its competition. Red Bull Racing is generally a competitive team, one that can secure podiums and the occasional race win.
The last thing a works team wants to do is offer Red Bull the technology that could cause it to beat their main team. I mean, look at the bad blood that lingers between Renault and Red Bull Racing after the two parted ways. Red Bull accused Renault of giving the team shoddy, uncompetitive engines. Renault wasn’t exactly keen to place a customer above its own interests. And that bad blood was largely the result of Renault entering as a works team; before that, Red Bull Racing was more than happy with what Renault had to provide. The duo won several championships together, after all.
So, Red Bull has to negotiate a new deal, but it’s not likely that anyone is going to be eager to step up to the plate.
If that happens—if Red Bull is totally unable to secure an engine manufacturer ahead of the 2021 season—then there’s a clause in the rules that dictates the engine manufacturer supplying the fewest amount of engines to the F1 grid must supply engines to an engine-less team.
Both Ferrari and Mercedes provide engines to three teams. Renault provides engines to two teams. That means Renault would be forced to step up to the plate. And, unless Red Bull is somehow able to secure a whole new engine manufacturer, the team is probably going to be using Renault power once again. It’s not ideal, but it’s not the end of the world.
But Honda’s exit doesn’t bode particularly well for F1, especially since the manufacturer renewed its commitment to the IndyCar series as IndyCar pursues a new set of hybrid technology. Honda dropping the so-called pinnacle of motorsport for not aligning with its future views immediately before committing to five more years in a different sport is a real downer for F1.
It’s not likely that Honda’s departure will cause F1 to spiral into oblivion. But hemorrhaging engine manufacturers is never a good sign.