ONCE the dominant force in Grand Prix, Honda are on the rise again after a remarkable return to success this season. PETER COSTER reports:
THE tears of relief shed by Honda motor sport boss Masashi Yamamoto at the Australian Grand Prix in March were but a summer shower compared with the joyous flood following the Brazilian GP on Sunday.
Before the season opener at Albert Park, the rising sun had failed to shine on the Japanese manufacturer
The once-dominant engine supplier had failed to reach the podium since rejoining F1 in 2015.
Honda had been unceremoniously dumped by McLaren in 2017 and ridiculed by its driver, double-world champion Fernando Alonso, as incapable of winning races.
But in what has become a reversal of fortunes, Red Bull replaced its Renault engines with Honda for the 2019 season.
This was seen as going from bad to worse in spite of Max Verstappen’s podium finish at Albert Park.
That was until Verstappen’s mid-year win in Austria. This was followed by victory in Germany and now Brazil, where Red Bull and junior team Toro Rosso stood on the first two steps of the podium.
Two laps earlier, Honda-powered cars filled the first three placings until newly-crowned world champion Lewis Hamilton in his Mercedes pushed Red Bull rookie Alex Albon off the track.
Hamilton immediately apologised to Albon for a collision that was “absolutely my fault” and was given a five-second penalty, which moved everyone up a place but did nothing for Albon who finished 14th.
It would have been his first podium finish in his first year in F1, but as Red Bull principal Christian Horner said: “There will be other days for Alex.”
What it did do was confirm Albon’s seat alongside Max Verstappen at Red Bull for the 2020 season.
Honda’s new-found power, which saw the Red Bulls and the Toro Rossos pull away from the Mercedes and Ferraris down the straights also put Verstappen’s Plan B on hold.
Plan B is a clause that allows the Dutch wunderkind to break his contract with Red Bull if they cannot provide him with a car capable of winning a world championship.
That is down to the Honda engine. Designer Adrian Newey’s Red Bull chassis is the equal of that of Mercedes and Ferrari.
Now there is a new dawn for the red sun and it could not have come at a better time for the Japanese manufacturer.
Yamamoto was upbeat after the race at Singapore in September, where Verstappen was third on the podium.
“Motorsport is everything for Honda, it’s part of our DNA,” enthused the Japanese F1 boss.
“When we started in 1948, Honda’s dream was to race. That ultimately led us to Formula 1 in 1964.
“It’s the challenge of performance and technology that drives us. So giving up halfway makes no sense, it’s not our mentality. We’re here to progress and grow. It’s very important for us.”
Honda’s hierarchy doesn’t seem as sure, but the Brazil results must encourage the engine manufacturer to stay for the long term.
Formula One is the world’s most expensive sport, with Ferrari and Mercedes running budgets of US $400 million a year and employing hundreds of staff in research and development.
Renault is also wondering whether to stay in F1, although a budget cap of US $175 million a year on all teams will help the also-rans.
If Renault were to pull out next year, which is being considered at the top level of the French manufacturer, Daniel Ricciardo could be without a seat.
Red Bull’s cantankerous consultant, Dr Helmut Marko, who was responsible for bringing the Australian driver into the Red Bull driver development program, said after Brazil that there is “no room” for him next year.
Red Bull and Toro Rosso are committed to their driver line-up of Verstappen and Albon at Red Bull and Pierre Gasly and Daniil Kvyat at Toro Rosso.
Ricciardo is at least equal to Verstappen and superior to Albon, who replaced Gasly at Red Bull.
Kvyat was dropped by Toro Rosso after a disappointing 2017 and spent last year as a development driver for Ferrari before being resigned by Toro Rosso this year.
Marko, who has great influence at Red Bull, appears to have lost whatever love he had for Ricciardo after the Australian decided to go to Renault.
The tipping point was Red Bull principal Christian Horner’s remark that the team was being built around Verstappen, not Ricciardo
Like Australia’s Mark Webber, who complained that Sebastian Vettel could do no wrong when they drove for Red Bull, Ricciardo said the same of Verstappen.
Now the Australian may find himself without a competitive drive with Mercedes likely to retain Valtteri Bottas alongside Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari committed to Sebastian Vettel and the Charles Leclerc.
Vettel, a four-time world champion who went to Ferrari after Ricciardo outraced him in his first year with Red Bull, appears unlikely to retire and Leclerc is a future world champion.
There has been tension between the two drivers with Vettel adding to a sting of mistakes by driving into Leclerc in Brazil and putting both cars out.
The Ferrari drivers were fighting each other for fourth place and would not have been able to catch the Red Bulls and Gasly’s Toro Rosso.
The French driver said it was “the best day of my life” after being dropped from Red Bull in favour of Albon after a disastrous start to the season where he was clearly overwhelmed by Verstappen.
The Dutch driver started on pole in Brazil after being penalised for failing to slow down under double-yellow flags following a heavy crash by Bottas in qualifying in Mexico.
SuperMax had already qualified on pole but was relegated to fourth on the grid for ignoring the yellows.
Ricciardo was promoted to sixth in Brazil after fighting his way back into the race following a collision with Kevin Magnussen and being called a “f…… idiot by the Haas driver over team radio.
Whatever happens in F1 after the last race of the season in Abu Dhabi in December, Melbourne in March will see more young guns on the grid.
Unfortunately, it’s F1’s senior citizens who are behaving badly.