A tearful Tanabe-san on the podium, Max Verstappen pointing to the Honda logo on his suit. It has been a long time coming. Honda is back on winning ways after a 13-year victory draught in F1 and 4 years after its ultimate, overhyped comeback to the Pinnacle of motorsport. The Japanese manufacturer trod on a troubled track, but found the light in the end as it cut ties with McLaren and instead tied the knot with Red Bull on a long-term deal.
But how did Honda rise from the ashes?
The #MakeHistory hashtag launched by McLaren as it broke the news on its renewed partnership with Honda did not find a concrete degree of fulfillment. The 2015 season was labelled ‘annus horribilis’ by team principal Ron Dennis, the mastermind behind the revival of the McLaren-Honda name as it would strike a compromise between an exclusive supplier and a strong financial supporter to the Woking-based team. The entire turbo-hybrid concept had been sorely underestimated by Honda, whose engine displayed countless flaws and an astonishing resistance to any sort of update to increase reliability or horsepower.
Yasuhisa Arai, who inevitably became the face of such a disastrous campaign, made room for Yusuke Hasegawa at the end of 2015. The newly-appointed director took over at the beginning of 2016, a season that tricked everyone into believing in what turned out to be just a mere appearance of improvement on the long term. Better reliability, more convincing results that temporarily tamed Fernando Alonso’s stinging sarcasm towards the Japanese manufacturer seemed to have become a habit. However, both McLaren and Honda hit rock bottom in 2017, which led to an early divorce during the Singapore Grand Prix. The two parties reached a point where neither could take it any longer, following unimaginable engine penalties, reciprocal mind games, unfiltered taunts and an insane amount of pressure thrown on Honda’s shoulders from an impatient Fernando Alonso. Moreover, McLaren started an internal revolution, from the arrival of a prominent figure as Zak Brown to the enstablishment of a gradually new structure.
Honda embarked on a new challenge with Toro Rosso in 2018, literally splitting Hasegawa’s former role into a figure who would take care of the in-house development (Asaki) and a manager/delegate at the track (Tanabe). Less pressure coming from above and a more efficient system from the dyno to the ierarchy got the manufacturer ready to supply Red Bull Racing in 2019. The whole environment at Toro Rosso was far more compatible with Honda; plus, the presence of Pierre Gasly, who was used to the Japanese philosophy, definitely had a positive impact on building a bridge between the two ‘clashing’ cultures. The timing was right for Honda and Red Bull to honour an agreement, as McLaren had already endured all youth problems on the engine and handled numerous cultural issues first. Therefore, Red Bull encountered a fine-tuned Honda, which was top-team-ready, having adjusted its technical approach as well as the communication towards the client.
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