When Toro Rosso announced a partnership with Honda it shocked the majority of the F1 paddock but there was one man who was smiling from ear to ear, a certain Christian Horner. This is because Horner understands that there is a very real chance this partnership involving their sister team can help Red Bull win a World Championship again in the near future.
To many viewers, this may seem a crazy claim. Honda rejoined F1 back in 2015 to much fanfare around the possible rekindling of the great McLaren Honda partnership of the 90s. Sadly, it turned out to be a disaster with the Honda engine being hugely unreliable and terribly down on power – who could forget Alonso calling it a GP2 engine at the Japanese GP of that year.
It was finally admitted by Honda at the Italian race of that year that their engine was 130hp down on the next slowest competitor of Renault. However, Honda did show slight signs of progress as the year ended and it was imagined they would be a midfield competitor for 2016 and would roar towards the front from 2017 on-wards.
The 2016 season did start well for Honda, with a noticeable power increase helping yield 24 points from the first six races – compared to 27 in the whole campaign for 2015. However, reliability was to be the bane of the remaining 2016 season and 2017 season with constant disappointment and many, many engine penalties.
Yet, despite all the reliability issues, it was slowly becoming apparent, especially towards the latter half of 2017, that Honda had been gradually increasing the power of their engines. They were of course still the slowest of the four engines, something which could visually be seen whenever a McLaren tried to defend to a non-McLaren car on a straight, but there was something about the final three races of 2017: 10th place in Mexico, 8th in Brazil and 9th in Abu Dhabi, all tracks which require half decent engines, which seemed to indicate that progress had been made.
This is where we come to 2018 and where things become very interesting. It is claimed by Honda that they are now on level terms with Renault with regards to power output -Honda have a habit of lying about power output so this should be taken with a large pinch of salt – but 2018 pre-season testing seems to back up the claims. Not only were their new team Toro Rosso, a team with an average chassis compared to the rest of the field, able to be competitive in their times to the rest of the midfield, but they also ran very reliably, far more reliably than the now Renault powered McLarens.
With Toro Rosso promising far more freedom for Honda compared to McLaren’s strict size zero policy, there will inevitably be more room for Honda to experiment and develop, possibly allowing them to truly equal or even surpass Renault as the year goes on.
This is where Red Bull come in. Ferrari and Mercedes have shown over the Hybrid era how being a manufacture team has significant benefits in regards to car design and ultimately overall speed. Red Bull have been (un)happily driving along with sub-par Renault engines for the past few years and with the Renault manufacture team spending huge budgets to close the gap, it could lead to Red Bull losing their place as the no 1 Renault team, possibly even relegating them down into a midfield scrap.
This would be unacceptable for a team like Red Bull, and it is therefore pivotal that they have their own engine that no other big team has, in order to achieve that competitive design edge they have been sorely missing and allow them to develop their own path, instead of being reliant on a potential close rival as would be the case by remaining with Renault.
Overall, considering the steady progress made by Honda and couple this with the dangers of a rising sleeping giant in Renault’s manufacture team and all of a sudden, using Toro Rosso as a Honda guinea pig starts to make very, very good sense.
If Toro Rosso can consistently mix it up with the midfield pack in 2018, expect Red Bull to switch over for 2019 and get ready to see a smiling Aussie or tenacious young Dutchman take a few surprise wins, ushering in the start of the next special partnership in F1 history.