Honda’s decision to pull out of Formula 1 as an engine supplier after 2021 isn’t a surprise. The Japanese manufacturer made no secret that it was reviewing its involvement in grand prix racing, and the axe has been hovering for a while. But its fall is still a shock, because of the major blow to F1 it represents – not to mention the consequences and meaning it carries that stretch far beyond the more immediate pain suffered by Red Bull Racing and sister team AlphaTauri.
In some respects, the decision doesn’t actually change the challenge that F1 faces. Even if Honda had committed, the big choices that F1 must make on its future propulsion and how it presents itself to a fast-changing world would still be looming. But the withdrawal does compound the pressure on a form of motorsport that looks increasingly out of touch with the evolving priorities of major car makers. F1 is facing an existential crisis of a magnitude that threatens its very essence and what it will stand for in the latter half of this decade and beyond.
Why Honda quit
Has Honda run out of puff in its quest to defeat Mercedes? That seems unlikely, given that its power unit is now considered to be broadly on a par with that of the Silver Arrows. And with clean-sheet new chassis rules being introduced in 2022, Honda had a genuine chance of rising beyond its current status as an occasional race winner. Rather than running scared, we have to take the company’s reasons for withdrawal at face value: that it no longer believes F1 can help achieve its goal of “realising carbon neutrality by 2050”.
“Honda needs to funnel its corporate resources for research and development into the areas of future power unit and energy technologies, including fuel cell vehicle (FCV) and battery-electric vehicle (BEV) technologies, which will be the core of carbon-free technologies,” it stated. “Honda will allocate its energy management and fuel technologies as well as knowledge amassed through F1 activities to this area… and take initiatives while focusing on the future realisation of carbon neutrality. Toward this end, Honda made the decision to conclude its participation in F1.”
Amid the corporate speak lurks a damning indictment of F1’s place – or lack of it – in the wider automotive world.
The failure of F1’s hybrid era
The 1.6-litre V6 turbo hybrid powerplants that have been used by F1 cars since 2014 are dumbfoundingly remarkable from the perspective of technology, as F1 ‘warfare’ accelerated progress in a manner that left the wider automotive industry gasping in its wake. But does any of it matter if everyone other than those involved appears to be looking the other way?