Honda has announced that it will withdraw from Formula One as an engine supplier, stating that it wants to focus more of its R&D towards fuel cells and battery electric vehicles instead of combustion engines. They will continue supplying Red Bull Racing and Scuderia Alpha Tauri until the end of the 2021 season.
Honda says that this change in focus is intended to facilitate their “realization of carbon neutrality by 2050.”
Honda has a long history in Formula One, serving as an engine supplier on and off since the 1960s. It was relatively unsuccessful in the early 2000s, never attaining a single race win and pulling out of the sport in 2008.
Honda returned to the sport for this most recent stint in 2015, in partnership with McLaren. This was soon after a big engine shakeup in F1, where the engine formula switched from naturally-aspirated 2.4L V8s to hybrid turbocharged 1.6L V6s. Honda, who have always focused on smaller engines in their road cars, saw this as an opportunity to showcase their expertise in the realm.
But Honda’s engine was plagued with problems at first and performed poorly, with a best race result of 5th place in its first 3 years back. Honda has turned it around in the last couple of seasons and has managed some good results, achieving 3 race wins in 2019 and 2 so far in 2020. But they are still getting pummeled by the Mercedes factory team, which is leagues ahead of everyone else.
Honda also supplies IndyCar with engines, where it is one of two suppliers alongside Chevrolet. IndyCar also uses a V6 turbo engine, though that engine is quite distinct from the F1 engine otherwise.
As for electric cars, Honda has comparatively little experience there. They produced one experimental electric car in the late 90s, the “EV Plus,” and only about 300 examples were made. Fast forward to the modern era, and Honda has had two compliance vehicles so far: the limited lease-only retrofit Fit EV and the outdated-at-launch Clarity EV.
But they could be turning it around in road cars, too. The Honda e, despite being unavailable in the US, has received great reviews, including from popular EV YouTube show Fully Charged. You can check out their review here on Electrek through our new collaboration with them.
The company is currently working with GM’s Ultium for future battery electric cars, and a move away from F1 may represent an attempt to jump-start their own internal EV programs. Previously, Honda had focused on fuel cells, though that is changing. But some Honda execs are still quite skeptical of EVs.
Honda isn’t the only automaker leaving gas motorsports. Over the last few years, several automakers have ended their programs and instead decided to focus on electric racing, especially Formula E. Porsche and Audi quit after successful stints in Le Mans, and Mercedes pulled out of German motorsports series DTM.
While Honda has not announced a move into electric racing, this announcement shows similar reasoning for pulling out of gas motorsports. There just isn’t anything left there for the future. Motorsports is expensive, and manufacturers will only remain involved in it for two reasons: R&D and marketing.
Some motorsports advancements have made their way down to road cars, and motorsports has long served as a testbed for road car R&D. But motorsport, particularly F1, has become less “road-relevant” over time as they chase more and more extreme margins of performance. F1 focuses mostly on high-speed aerodynamics these days, and engines work on such precise margins and extreme temperatures that they would never work in road cars.
So, primarily, marketing is the main reason for motorsports these days. A common saying goes: “win on Sunday, sell on Monday.” If you’re winning in motorsports, it boosts your brand and allows you to sell several-million-dollar hypercars that the hyperwealthy can keep in their garage and pretend they’ll ever see more than the first 30% of the speedometer.
And Honda wasn’t winning. In a series that is meant to show their expertise — small hybrid engines, from the company that produced one of the first and most efficient hybrids ever, the Honda Insight — they just aren’t winning. And participating in gas motorsports when the tide is quite obviously changing against polluting engines just doesn’t make any sense.
So Honda, always one of the more fuel-efficient automakers, and a supporter of higher fuel efficiency and ZEV standards, felt the investment in F1 could be better served elsewhere.
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