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Formula 1

Is Honda heading for Formula E?

by Sam Smith
5 min read

It’s natural that Honda’s withdrawal from Formula 1 today has expedited excited questions about a potential Formula E involvement for the Gen3 rules set that arrives in 2022/23.

Timing-wise it fits; messaging wise it fits; and to quench Honda’s legendary competitive thirst, it all fits like a glove.

But in fact, the Japanese giant has a decent selection box of electric treats to pursue and each is likely to fit into its goal of complementing its ‘electrifying two-thirds of our global automobile unit sales in 2030’ mantra.

One of the choices is the new Pure ETCR touring car series, which in terms of a more urban and street look is potentially more relevant for Honda’s image and brand than a Gen3 Formula E spaceship style single-seater.

There is also the possibility for a one-make showcase support series for Formula E. This could use the current Gen2 cars to nurture new driving and engineering talent, as well as potentially showcasing some funky new Honda infrastructure and charging tech.

That might sound fanciful but with the Jaguar I-PACE eTROPHY having disbanded, the FIA and Formula E are eager to find a credible support series with a new or existing manufacturer. Honda has also had single-make spec series in the past such as Formula Dream.

Mix into this the little known fact that Honda has already been in Formula E in a very unofficial, quiet way, and the argument for a factory Formula E operation gathers extra credence and pace.

This all happened very quietly in the maiden campaign of the nascent all-electric series back in 2014/15. That was when the former Super Aguri F1 technical axis of Mark Preston and Peter McCool fronted the Amlin Aguri team for a single season.

It was a campaign that went from a shambling presence at the pre-season tests, (so bad in fact that current champion Antonio Felix da Costa quit the team for a few hours), to one that won the fourth race in Buenos Aires in January 2015.

Antonio Felix da Costa Amlin Aguri Buenos Aires Formula E 2015

By then it had an unofficial and remote technical cell of Honda engineers that was working on pre-event energy recovery and MGU management strategies.

The team, which numbered just three, even came to some races in 2015 and the plan was to integrate them further ahead of more Honda involvement for season two or season three.

McCool, technical director at Amlin Aguri from 2013-15, is now The Race’s Formula E technical consultant. He takes up the story of Honda’s involvement.

“We couldn’t get Honda to come in because of their F1 programme starting” :: Peter McCool

“Honda were doing what all the other manufacturers were doing at the time which was just watching really,” says McCool, who worked closely with Honda at McLaren in the early 1990s and again with Super Aguri.

“They did it because they got access to the championship knowledge and they did a great job for us because they are an excellent racing company.”

Additionally, Formula E was negotiating a TV deal with Japanese media giant TV Asahi, which confirmed a multi-year broadcasting rights deal. The perceived momentum was that the likes of Honda and Nissan would soon come to Formula E.

Nissan eventually did in 2017, but it didn’t come to pass for Honda and the reason was simple: F1.

“We couldn’t get them to come in because of their F1 programme starting, despite the fact that we all knew it was highly aligned with their global strategy, because it’s what they said they would be doing when they left Formula 1 at the end of 2008,” confirms McCool.

Practically, Honda would have to buy into, or buy out, an existing team in Formula E for a 2022 entry. But there are plenty that would be available for the right price.

Potentially half the grid would have open ears and open coffers for a manufacturer like Honda to take their pitch.

From champion DS Techeetah to also-rans like Dragon, Honda could make it happen pretty easily.

Sergio Sette Camara Dragon Berlin Formula E 2020

But just as the excitement and evidence for a Honda FE programme reaches a zenith, here are some reality checks.

Honda is believed to be shifting its emphasis to such spheres as the future EV trucks business as it was caught short in recent years on strong EV products getting to market. It is also known to be looking closely at EV infrastructure industries.

Though hardly attractive fodder for column inches, it is a strategy that Honda, which has been conservative, to say the least, in its adoption of all-electric products, is pursuing.

Honda’s withdrawal from F1 has been seen as something of a tremor warning to the championship before a potential full scale ‘quake hits should Mercedes follow suit soon anytime soon.

My colleague Mark Hughes hit the nail on the head when he wrote today that: “F1 has a choice to make: either continued association with automotives and following their technology direction towards carbon neutrality or cutting those strings and trying to exist as a specialist endeavour”.

But it also looks like the manufacturers are really taking those decisions out of F1’s hands at present, and there is likely more manufacturer movement away from F1 to come.

Max Verstappen Red Bull Russian Grand Prix 2020 Sochi

The movement in powertrain tech as a whole is named as a motivation by Honda for its F1 exit and this can be of little surprise.

What this amplifies is that F1 is risking its future through indecision over what its future identity should be.

Formula E has an exclusivity electric powertrain agreement with the FIA until 2039 and its chairman and co-founder Alejandro Agag believes that “electric is going to be the powertrain or the way to move cars around in the future.

“Formula E has a 25-year-long exclusive licence for single-seaters on electric. That for me puts the condition to some kind of understanding in the future. How that will happen, I don’t know.”

Agag said those words at the FIA EConference in June, but it was perhaps the following quote that, in the context of today’s news, paves the way for what many believe will be an inevitable merger between F1 and FE.

“Once electric formula cars are as fast as combustion formula cars, I don’t really see the reason to race separately.”

Perhaps it will only be then that Honda will make yet another return to a newly established and future mobility relevant pinnacle of racing.

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