Koji Watanabe, President of Honda Racing Corporation, confirmed that although the Japanese manufacturer pulled out of Formula 1 last year, they are still keeping an eye on things as a possible return is not out of the question.
Honda has had a bittersweet journey in car racing, F1 in particular. Splendid title-winning years with McLaren in which the likes of Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna, and with Williams before that are etched into the sport’s history.
But their attempts at a team were abortive, despite huge investment the entire operation was sold to Ross Brawn in 2009, before it was taken over by the Mercedes team we know today. Had Honda waited another year, hung in there with Brawn GP, F1 history would be vastly different.
Instead Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello were front-runners through 2009, with the Briton crowned champion… with Mercedes power.
Honda returned to F1 with McLaren in 2015, history shows that was a disaster before Red Bull and the Japanese auto giant combined to produce the car Max Verstappen powered to his first world title with last year. Again, from the bleachers it appears Honda decided to leave at the wrong time, again.
Agnes Carlier sat down with Watanabe during the Austrian Grand Prix weekend to establish what Honda have on their motor sporting ambitions for the years ahead, particularly the F1 situation where they are still involved with the newly formed Red Bull Powertrains operation and, of course, HRC branding remains on the Red Bulls.
The HRC boss also answered were questions about Honda-backed and promoted AlphaTauri driver, Japan’s 22-year-old sensation Yuki Tsunoda.
Why did you visit the Austrian GP this time?
Koji Watanabe: In principle, this is a courtesy visit. Last year, which was the final year of Honda F1, I couldn’t visit any of the races. I was planning to go to Abu Dhabi from quite a while back, and it was in my plans to go, right up to the Tuesday before the race weekend; but unfortunately that was not to be. I decided to visit the Austrian Grand Prix as it is Red Bull’s home Grand Prix to thank them for their past support.
Last week, the F1 Commission meeting was held, did you attend?
KW:We knew that this meeting was going to take place, but we did not come here for this; we did not participate.
Honda has a voice in the Constructor’s Commission?
KW: We were not there for that meeting.
This year, you [Red Bull] are leading the championship in the drivers’ and constructors’ championships, but Honda ended its participation in F1 last year, and this year you only have your logo on the car. Is this ok or frustrating?
KW: Basically, our F1 activities as Honda ended last year, so in that sense there is no particular frustration. I am also the president of HRC, but HRC is only providing technical support at the request of Red Bull and in accordance with their requests. Therefore, we are not developing and manufacturing power units of our own volition, but are cooperating with Red Bull with the management of the engines in response to their request, so there is no frustration.
Since Honda announced its withdrawal from F1, F1 has also started various environmental initiatives. Do you have any regrets about your decision to withdraw?
KW: Honda considers motorsports to be very important, so it was a difficult decision for us to quit. However, in the midst of the company’s decision to concentrate on the development of carbon-neutral technology, there was no other way but to discontinue our activities from F1, which uses a great deal of human resources. In fact, we had been developing the technology for this season until March this year, but after that, the development was frozen, so basically all HRD SAKURA engineers were moved to the Advanced Technology Research Institute as planned. The only people who remain at HRC are those who can provide support for Red Bull, such as assembly and so on. I think it is a wonderful direction that F1 is moving in the direction of carbon neutrality. We are watching F1 with great interest. However, that does not mean that we are going to return to F1 anytime soon. We are not discussing whether we will return to F1 or not, as we will continue to develop the technology we have decided to pursue.
In an ideal world would you want to convince Honda to come back again in 2026?
No, we’re not thinking of that at all
There is talk that hydrogen engines may be introduced in 2026, but if that happens, is there a possibility that Honda will return to F1?
KW: We have no such plans at all. We will continue to pay attention to F1, and if various conditions are met, we may return to F1. However, right now we are not discussing the possibility of returning in 2026 within the company.
What about Audi and Porsche’s participation in F1 from 2026?
KW: I am not in a position to talk about other automakers when we are not participating in F1, but I think that the participation of many automakers in F1 will be a very welcome development for the sport.
(Japanese reporter just confirming that staff have been pulled out of Sakura research and placed within Honda’s Advanced Technology Research dep.)
What about Yuki Tsunoda?
KW: He has been improving since the second half of last year, and I think he is doing very well this year. I have talked with members of Red Bull and Alpha Tauri today, and they say that he is really getting much better, so I have high expectations for him this season.
What do you think of Yuki Tsunoda’s future?
KW: I want him to do his best. However, basically, the team decides who the driver will be, so we have no choice but to follow their decision. Nevertheless, we hope he will do well expect him to do well, as he is a driver who has been developed through Honda’s training system.
Is the Austrian GP like a home race for you?
KW: For us, our home Grand Prix is Suzuka.
I think the purpose of today’s visit was to pay a courtesy call as a sign of gratitude, but what did President Sanbe have to say?
KW: I wanted to go to Abu Dhabi to congratulate you, but I am sorry I could not do so. He said, “Thank you very much for winning the championship last year.
What was the reaction from the Red Bull side?
KW : They said that they were really happy to see me after a long time and that they were very happy to have a really good power unit supplied to them. They said that they are very grateful to us because we were able to start this year’s season as smoothly as ever. He said that he would be even happier if he could receive more power and that he would be grateful for your support (laughs).
What are your thoughts on the fact that you have repeatedly entered and exited the competition?
KW: I cannot say for sure because we have not yet signed a full contract with Red Bull for the period up to 2025, but we will be able to continue our activities to a certain extent, so I think we will be able to continue our technology with them there to some extent. If we stop everything, it will take a tremendous amount of power, money, and various other things to start up again, so I feel that even if we have to leave F1 completely after this, we will still have to look at the technical aspects of the project. I feel that even if I leave F1 completely after this, I still need to keep an eye on the technical aspects of the sport. However, now that I have just finished my F1 participation, there is no indication that I will do it. There are a lot of rumors that I’ve heard.
I will confirm one of those rumours: that Red Bull will team up with Porsche from 2026 and register the name of the engine next year from Red Bull Powertrains to Honda in order to compete as a newcomer under the name of Red Bull Powertrains. If you are told so, what is Honda’s plan to do? If you were asked to put the Honda name back on the powertrains, what would Honda do?
KW: We haven’t been asked that, so it’s hard to say, but we would be a little hesitant.
For example, if it were HRC, would you be okay with that?
KW: It is a bit difficult. We are not a power unit supplier, so it would be like having some kind of sponsorship.
There are rumours that Honda might stay on as a sponsor.
KW: Honda is still a team partner and sponsor of the two teams. The Honda logo is not on the car, only HRC which is a technical partner and the sponsor support is the ones with “HONDA” written on the team shirts and other logos.
About the Japanese Grand Prix?
KW: Since we are the title sponsor this year, we are making various preparations to please everyone who will come to Suzuka for the first time in three years. We are thinking of various ideas tricks and are currently discussing them.
What is your favourite Grand Prix?
KW: I love Suzuka and I love it here as well in Austria. My next GP visit will probably be Suzuka, and perhaps Abu Dhabi