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Formula 1

Honda F1 return needs to be more than just engine supply

by Scott Mitchell-Malm
4 min read

Honda would need to be more than just an engine supplier if it returns to Formula 1 in 2026 or beyond – something that the manufacturer does not rule out.

Although Honda’s engines continue to be used by Red Bull Racing and AlphaTauri this year, Honda itself officially withdrew from F1 at the end of 2021.

The decision was made in 2020 as the company’s board wanted to redirect financial and human resources towards investment in new automotive technologies to help reach a 2050 carbon neutrality target.

But Honda has walked away just as new engine regulations, F1’s increasing popularity, and a shifting business model to make it more affordable to compete in F1 have convinced Porsche and Audi to try to finalise deals to enter F1 in different forms in 2026.

F1 is believed to consider Honda a potential candidate for the next set of engine rules as well.

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Koji Watanabe, Honda Racing Corporation president and Honda Motor Company’s chief officer of brand and communication operations, has told The Race that while an F1 return is not under discussion officially within Honda, it is possible given the right conditions.

He also appears to have confirmed that Honda could eventually return as more than just an engine manufacturer.

As previously reported by The Race, internally in Honda there was understood to have been a briefing to the CEO that a future F1 project would need to be a full works team.

Honda did not consider a works team for its return in the V6 turbo-hybrid era because it felt its expertise was on the engine side.

Asked if that was still the case, Watanabe said: “Yes. At this moment, yes.”

But Honda’s F1 history is split into four eras: a works team in the 1960s, engine supplier in the 1980s, a works engine project that led to a works team again by the late-2000s, and most recently just an engine supplier again.

And when it was jokingly suggested that the pattern of works team/engine supplier/works team/engine supplier suggested that Honda’s fifth era would mean a works team again, Watanbe smiled and said: “If so, maybe [it will be] a new way of participation.”

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He then reiterated that his “personal opinion” is that Honda needs to be in F1 in a more involved capacity if it returns.

“I don’t know exactly what kind of direction, but a new way of participation is necessary,” he said.

“Not only power unit supplier. Something else. But I don’t know [if as a] team or [something else].”

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Honda is only contracted by Red Bull to assemble and maintain the existing F1 engines through to the end of 2025, after which Red Bull will have its own in-house engine project.

The manufacturer continues to follow F1’s process in finalising its 2026 engine regulations, though, alongside an impending switch to supposed 100% sustainable fuels.

Watanabe said that it’s “too early” to talk about a potential F1 return and there is “no discussion” about that.

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However, he acknowledged that “we are interested in” F1’s technological direction because Honda is considering various avenues of development.

“From that point of view, we still have interest in the Formula 1 activities, if Formula 1 is really focused on carbon neutral [technology],” he said.

While obvious factors in an F1 return will be the consideration of cost and workforce allocation, Watanabe has also admitted F1’s increasing popularity could have an impact.

One of the reasons the Volkswagen Group brands are so interested is F1’s increasing global appeal, especially in key markets.

Watanabe admitted: “F1 is getting more and more popular in the United States, that’s important also for us.

“Our business in Europe is quite small. And so the plan in United States or North America and the Chinese market, if Formula 1 is getting popular, then that’s quite important for us to make a decision.”

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Watanabe was part of a top-level group of Honda personnel who travelled to the Austrian GP along with Honda’s CEO Toshihiro Mibe and chairman Seiji Kuraishi and HRC director Yasuaki Asaki.

As suspected in advance, though, this was effectively a show of gratitude to Red Bull for the partnership’s title-winning 2021 season, as Honda’s executives could not travel to any races last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

No talks about a 2026 return or future engine regulations were on the agenda although one business item was planned.

The current engine supply deal means Honda remains a technical partner to Red Bull under the HRC banner and Watanabe said the two companies need to maintain a “strong relationship”.

That is likely to result in Red Bull and Honda revising their branding deal for 2023-25 to give the company more recognition for the engine it designed and continues to build for Red Bull.

“No regret [about leaving F1] we are really proud of the current situation, because the engine itself is developed by us,” said Watanabe.

“And also we are helping to to operate the power unit itself. So still the power unit is kind of our child.

“We are not the [official] supplier anymore, so we don’t care about the naming itself.

“But maybe we can say a little bit more that the original is made by Honda, or currently supported by HRC.”

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