October 5th, 2020 by Carolyn Fortuna
It wasn’t that long ago that Fernando Alonso exclaimed on his Formula 1 (F1) race radio, “It feels like GP2. Embarrassing. Very embarrassing.” Alonso’s dismay about his Honda-powered McLaren came during the 2015 Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka as he was overtaken by the low-tier Sauber of Marcus Ericsson.
Later, Alonso admitted that the message was supposed to be only for his race engineer. “It was not meant to be public. But the engine was very bad.” During its first year pre-season testing in Jerez, the Honda-powered car completed only 7 laps in 4 days.
Fast forward to 2020, and Honda has announced that it will cease to participate as an engine provider for the Formula 1 racing series at the end of the 2021 season. The automaker has decided to turn its focus to zero emission vehicles.
One of the early automakers to venture into hybrid technology, Honda has been quite disappointing in the world of electric vehicles.
As our own CleanTechnica editor Zachary Shahan notes, Honda’s only genuine foray into 100% electric vehicles up until now has seemingly been the Honda e, a “cool and cute” electric car aimed at the European market. The problem is that this small city car has a range of 220 km (137 mi) before needing to recharge. While it was possibly competitive 5 years ago, Shahan calls this range “extremely lame in 2020.” Yet Honda only needs to sell 10,000 electric vehicles a year to comply with European regulations, and that’s all it intends to sell of the Honda e.
The company also canceled production of the Clarity Electric at the end of 2019 because of the vehicles’ low demand. The Clarity Electric, like all electric Hondas to date, has been called a “compliance car” because it was only developed and sold for markets that required more EVs. The Clarity Electric’s range was a “pitiful” 143 km (89 miles), says Shahan.
Honda’s Exodus From F1
Honda chief executive Takahiro Hachigo said in a news conference this week that the company would refocus its efforts to build fuel-cell and electric vehicles. Honda will try to achieve the goals of electrifying 2/3 of its global automobile sales in 2030 and realizing carbon neutrality by 2050, according to Hachigo.
The reason why? Honda states it is now turning its corporate eye to becoming a carbon-neutral company. “Honda will allocate its energy management and fuel technologies as well as knowledge amassed through F1 activities to this area of power unit and energy technologies,” a statement said. Honda acknowledged that the move was a result of the transformation of the car industry away from internal combustion engines.
That means the vast financial resources devoted to F1 during a 7-year period will be redirected to consumer vehicle applications in what might be termed a better-late-than-never strategy.
The F1 engine manufacturer has hardly resembled its former competitive self due to unreliability and lack of power. Once a dominant force in F1, Honda left F1 in 2008 amid the global financial crises. Upon its return in 2015 as a supplier for McLaren, Honda then spent 3 very difficult years with McLaren — neither engine nor car ran at a competitive level.
Honda’s relationship with McLaren came to an end after 2017 as the team decided to switch to Renault engines, with one 6th place finish and two 9th place finishes in 3 years.
“If a top driver today goes through the performance that I went through, I could not imagine what they would say,” Alonso remarked. “In 2015 I was always fighting to get out of Q1 and had 575 places of penalties.”
The two-time F1 world champion is pleased to see Honda back in a situation where it is winning races. “I’m very happy, but the engine I had in the car was not the same as the one winning” in 2020.
The company switched to Red Bull’s junior team Toro Rosso for 2018 and then Red Bull itself for 2019 and have won a total of 5 grand prix over the last 2 years. With 2 F1 victories this season — Red Bull in England and Alpha Tauri in Italy — the engine supplier has had only modest success. It has never proven to be in competition with world champion Mercedes, which this year have increased their margin even more on the field.
Honda’s exodus means that F1 will have only 3 remaining power unit suppliers: Mercedes, Ferrari, and Renault. F1 rules will require that Renault, which supplies the fewest teams, would have to supply Aston Martin Red Bull with engines unless that team signs an agreement with either Mercedes or Ferrari.
Renault F1 managing director Cyril Abiteboul said on Friday that the company would meet its obligations if required. Abiteboul said: “I guess that it is only at this point in time that will be discussed if Red Bull fail to find a solution, which I really hope will not be the situation.”
Where Does Honda’s Departure Leave Red Bull?
Honda president Takahiro Hachigo said it would press ahead with plans for a new power-unit design for 2021, with the aim of challenging for the world championship.
Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said: “The shifting focus within the automotive industry has led to Honda’s decision to re-deploy their resources, and we understand and respect the reasoning behind this.”
“Their decision presents obvious challenges for us as a team,” Christian Horner, Team Principal of Red Bull Racing, said. “Whilst we are disappointed not to continue our partnership with Honda, we are enormously proud of our joint success. Our joint focus for the remainder of the 2020 and 2021 seasons are unchanged — to fight for victories and challenge for the championship.”
Aston Martin Red Bull is currently in second place in the F1 constructors’ standings for the somewhat abbreviated 2020 season of 17 races. In the separate drivers’ standings, Red Bull’s Max Verstappen is 3rd behind the two Mercedes drivers: Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas.
Red Bull said it “remained committed to the sport in the long term” having signed a new contract with F1 last month.
“We look forward to embarking on a new era of innovation, development and success,” said Horner. “As a group, we will now take the time afforded to us to further evaluate and find the most competitive power-unit solution for 2022 and beyond.”
Formula 1 is currently owned by billionaire John Malone and the Liberty Media Investment Group.
What’s On The Horizon For Formula 1 Engines?
F1 will require a new engine formula in the mid-2020s. At this time, 1.6-litre V6 turbo hybrid engines are in place, which is an architecture agreed upon by global car manufacturers. An F1 engine’s thermal efficiency — its rate of converting fuel-energy to power — is more than 50%, compared with just over 30% for a typical road-car engine.
According to Honda, the current era is “a once-in-100-years period of great transformation” for the automotive industry as it points to electrification. Traditional legacy automakers are — finally — responding to legislative restrictions on internal combustion engines across the globe, a trend which was ignited by US all-electric car manufacturer Tesla.
Until further R&D is completed, Formula 1 cars won’t be able to run on electricity. The power need to last a race duration isn’t adequate yet. In the meantime, reducing carbon consumption within the current hybrid technology as well as promoting synthetic fuels is the near-term F1 goal.
Honda does not plan to participate in Formula E, the electric car racing series.
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