Red Bull's Honda tie-up bears risks

Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo driving to victory at the Monaco Grand Prix. The Australian driver will have a new engine in his Red Bull next year, if he decides to stay with the team beyond this Formula One season.
Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo driving to victory at the Monaco Grand Prix. The Australian driver will have a new engine in his Red Bull next year, if he decides to stay with the team beyond this Formula One season.PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON • Red Bull's two-year Formula One engine deal with Honda from 2019, finally announced yesterday, has as much potential for risk as reward for the former world champions.

On the plus side, Red Bull will be effectively a manufacturer "works" team for the first time in their history - Honda's only other outfit being Red Bull-owned junior team Toro Rosso - even if still customers of the Japanese engine maker.

That should reduce running costs for the energy drink brand, with Honda said to be bringing US$100 million (S$136 million) a year to McLaren before the end of that failed partnership last year, and provide a clear focus.

The new partnership with a top-three team gives the Japanese manufacturer the chance to rebuild its standing in the sport, a process that has already started with a more competitive - if still unreliable - engine this year.

"We feel that we will have to live up to their high expectations, but can see their respect for us, and we will put everything we have into the development for next season," said Honda's motorsport head Masashi Yamamoto.

Red Bull have used Cosworth, Ferrari and Renault engines without ever having a major manufacturer focused solely on their two teams.

With Renault, they won 47 races and eight titles - four drivers' and constructors' - in the V8 era but the relationship soured in the V6 turbo hybrid era dominated by Mercedes while the French carmaker is also rebuilding its own works team.

Red Bull's options were effectively only to stay with Renault or switch to Honda, with Mercedes and Ferrari having no interest in supplying a championship rival.

The Renault engine, while a winner twice already this season with Australian Daniel Ricciardo, is still down on power and unreliable - as is the Honda.

The downside for Red Bull is that, while Honda has made big progress, it is not yet in the same league as the front-running engines. The gamble is that Honda can close the gap, given the current stability of engine rules.

The fact that Red Bull have announced only a two-year deal is significant, with changes in the pipeline potentially opening the door for other engine manufacturers to enter the sport in 2021.

How it affects Ricciardo remains to be seen, with the Australian out of contract at the end of the year and considering his options.

But the 28-year-old, one of the most popular and exciting drivers, may ultimately not have much choice.

Although linked in media speculation to Mercedes and Ferrari, who both have potential vacancies, neither has evinced much interest.

McLaren, now with Renault engines, could be another possibility if double world champion Fernando Alonso, a winner at Le Mans on Sunday, ramps up his quest for the "Triple Crown" of Motorsport and heads for IndyCars and the Indianapolis 500.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 20, 2018, with the headline 'Red Bull's Honda tie-up bears risks'. Print Edition | Subscribe