Just six years after returning to the sport as an engine supplier, Honda is set to depart Formula 1 following the conclusion of the 2021 campaign, ending their partnership with Red Bull and junior team AlphaTauri in the process.
Despite achieving success in the shape of race wins with both outfits, the Japanese firm took the decision to back out mid-way through last year, with Red Bull taking on the development of their power-unit in-house from 2022 onwards.
The move was a blow in the eyes of many, with Honda boasting a rich history in the sport. Thankfully, they have one final shot at glory in 2021 as Red Bull aim to close the gap to Mercedes and AlphaTauri try and build on an excellent 2020 season.
Speaking ahead of the launch of the AT02 last week, AlphaTauri spoke to Honda F1 technical director, Toyoharu Tanabe, about the manufacturer’s aims for the new season.
There are no PU developments allowed during this year, so you have to get it right the first time. Do you think you have managed that?
Toyoharu Tanabe: “Of course this is Honda’s last year in Formula 1 and in order to finish on a high note, everyone in Sakura and Milton Keynes is very determined and we feel we have prepared well for the coming season in conjunction with Scuderia AlphaTauri over the winter so far. We won’t know for sure how good a job we have done until we hit the track, but so far preparation has gone smoothly.”
What results have you seen on the dyno this winter? Are you happy with the figures you are seeing?
Tanabe: “On the dyno the numbers we have seen match what we expected. Let’s see how competitive we can be on track in the actual races.”
There are rumours of major changes made to the PU for this year. What can you say about that?
Tanabe: “It is difficult be specific about which parts have seen the most work, but in order to improve power and reliability, we have made modifications to the ICE, turbine and ERS. This is our third year with Scuderia AlphaTauri and in order to improve as a whole, we have also improved the installation and packaging of the entire PU.”
Is this the PU that you had originally planned to introduce for 2022?
Tanabe: “Before the Covid-19 pandemic, we were going to introduce a new PU for this year, however, given all the difficulties and restrictions because of the long F1 shutdown, combined with the European lockdown and delay in parts supply, we had decided to postpone it to 2022. However, taking into account the decision announced in October 2020, that Honda would leave the sport at the end of 2021, we reassessed the situation and changed our plan again to reintroduce it in 2021. It was very tight timing to make this change, but we managed to bring forward the development and preparation programme. At Honda, we felt that we really wanted to use all our technical know-how before leaving the sport.”
There were no PU related penalties last year for Honda. Is there a risk on the reliability front this year if you are pushing hard for more power?
Tanabe: “After Honda returned to F1 in 2015 we endured some very difficult times, but we also learned a lot and our good reliability last year is down to the lessons learnt. We have changed many things on this year’s PU, but our experience in terms of reliability was applied to this. Performance and reliability are always a very subtle balancing act and we hope to maintain that balance this year. We expect to know more once we have run on track, after which we can just make operational changes in terms of how we run the PU.”
Realistically, what level of results with Scuderia AlphaTauri would you consider a success for 2021?
Tanabe: “Last year the mid-field competition was tougher than in previous years and a very small performance gap could make a big difference in the results. It was great that Pierre Gasly was able to win in Monza and overall, we had a great year with Scuderia AlphaTauri. Our rivals are also developing and so this will be another year of close competition, but we are sure that Honda and Scuderia AlphaTauri have progressed over our three years together and we are now truly one team, strong and united. Scuderia AlphaTauri’s support and cooperation played a key role in allowing Honda to become competitive in the hybrid era and we truly appreciate that. It would be great if we can do even better in our final year together.”
You will be able to work with a Japanese driver this year. What do you expect from Tsunoda in his rookie season?
Tanabe: “We are very glad that a long-time Honda-supported driver will make his F1 debut with Scuderia AlphaTauri. He will be the first Japanese driver on the grid since Kamui Kobyashi seven years ago. I expect he may encounter situations and difficulties he has never experienced before. However, he has adapted really quickly in F3 and F2 and progressed well, therefore I believe he will learn quickly and improve race by race in Formula 1. He will be the centre of a lot of attention, especially from Japan, which will possibly be extra pressure for him, but I hope he continues with his aggressive style of racing in F1 as well. Honda will do all it can to support him.”
Do you have any comment on the fact it’s recently been agreed that Scuderia AlphaTauri will continue to use Honda technology for its PU from 2022 onwards, even though Honda is leaving F1?
Tanabe: “I think it is the right thing for Honda to do, considering our relationship with Scuderia AlphaTauri and Red Bull Racing, and how much Honda has benefited from those partnerships. It also reflects the importance of our role and history, as part of the world of Formula 1 over several decades. So, I am glad that Honda has been able to help the two teams and the sport in this way.”