Tanabe describes that Hungary result as “encouraging”, and that was best illustrated in qualifying: in difficult wet conditions, Gasly and team-mate Brendon Hartley qualified sixth and eighth respectively, sandwiching Red Bull driver Max Verstappen. According to Hartley, that result highlighted a real strength of the Honda engine.
“Since the first test this year, we’ve had perfect drivability: when I put the throttle down, I get the exact response I want from the engine,” he says. “That sounds like a simple thing, but when you have such a complex powertrain as a modern F1 car, it’s not straightforward – and we know other teams have more issues with this than we do. That really helped in Hungary.”
Hartley acknowledges “a lot of people wrote us off and thought we had no chance”. But he adds: “Everyone at Toro Rosso saw this as a huge opportunity to work one-on-one with one of the biggest manufacturers in the world. There have only been positives in the relationship so far.”
Despite the progress, it’s clear the Honda power unit is still not a match for rivals. Tanabe’s solution to this problem is admirably simple: “We have to try to close the gap and make more power.” He won’t specify how exactly Honda plans to achieve that but notes that “we are thinking”.
The reduced expectations of the Toro Rosso deal has enabled Honda to do that thinking in relative peace. Supplying both Red Bull teams means next year won’t be so quiet. Having four cars on the grid should enable Honda to develop quicker. “Theoretically, we will double the benefit,” says Tanabe. “But maybe Red Bull has a different philosophy for the car, which means not only double the benefit, but more than double.”
There will, assuredly, be more than double the pressure. Red Bull is a proven title-winning squad and has input from star designer Adrian Newey, a rising star driver in Verstappen and a firm belief that it has had the best chassis in F1 in recent years. Oh, and a history of outspoken criticism of current engine supplier Renault’s efforts. The level of pressure is likely to be as big as the oversized, 32-truck Red Bull Energy Station.
Still, Tanabe isn’t easily caught out making lofty predictions. Asked about targets with Red Bull, he simply says: “We will try to get a higher position but, at the moment, I cannot tell you exactly what our target is.” Then Tanabe pauses again. “We always challenge to get the win.”
Q&A: Pierre Gasly, F1 Driver:
Red Bull star Daniel Ricciardo’s shock switch to Renault for 2019 opened up a seat in one of F1’s top three teams, which has since been filled by 22-year-old Pierre Gasly, who has starred for Toro Rosso this year. We spoke to him before the move was confirmed.
How’s your relationship with Honda?
“The story has been amazing. In Super Formula [Japan’s equivalent to F2] last year, we fought for the title until the last race, and it’s great to continue that relationship this year. I learned a lot about the culture, and how to communicate with them.”
Are you ready to move up to Red Bull?
“That’s where I want to be – but, at the moment, I don’t think about it. The mentality that got me to F1 is just to focus on myself, and if I show my potential, then it will come one day. If I’m fast, I’ll get my chance, so I just need to make sure I’m fast.”