The United States Grand Prix marks a major milestone for Honda in Formula 1. Sunday’s race will be our 100th since returning to the sport in 2015, with the target of becoming world champions once again.
After six years away from F1, we announced our return with McLaren, rekindling an iconic partnership that caught the attention of our current F1 technical director Toyoharu Tanabe.
“Of course I was excited to hear the announcement,” Tanabe-san says. “I was in the US, so I didn’t have any details from the Japan side. I didn’t get much information, but I was working on the Honda Performance Development (HPD) project and I was excited. Not only me, but every HPD member kept watching the progress and the status of our Formula 1 project.”
At that stage, Tanabe-san was leading the IndyCar project here in the United States, but did he have an eye on a return to Formula 1 himself with the new challenge we were taking on?
“I’ll tell you the truth, yes! Actually I didn’t expect very much because at that time, we were working on that engine project for the next generation of IndyCar. I joined HPD and worked very much trackside, and then I was thinking I would move from trackside to a little bit of a development side for the new engine project. I thought I would stay with HPD for that project, but of course Formula 1 is one of the most attractive projects for us.”
Looking at the early years of our return, Tanabe-san saw a difficult beginning. Alongside McLaren, results were hard to come by, and while both sides worked relentlessly - securing seven top-six finishes and a best championship finish of sixth in 2016 - it was a partnership that ultimately came to an end in 2017.
“I knew how difficult a project it would be in terms of technology. We had experience of the internal combustion engine, we had experience of hybrid from the production car, but we had little hybrid racing experience.
“The MGU-H was a new bit of high-complexity technology. From the outside I was looking at the testing and race results, and I could understand our engineers would be working very hard, but I knew how hard it is to catch up to the other PU manufacturers.
“When I joined the project, I tried to build up a strong and unified team. I tried to improve communication between trackside, Sakura, the Milton Keynes factory, and also between the individual engineers and mechanics as well.”
In 2018, we had a fresh start with Toro Rosso. It acted as a kind of reset, allowing us to find new ways of approaching F1 based on the lessons of the previous three years. Honda people were happy to work with Toro Rosso because they were very open. They have been open since we started to work with them, so they listen to us. We’re very happy to work with them. I can’t say for certain if it took the pressure off because I was not involved in the three years with McLaren, but maybe. “I don’t know what they expected from me, but with a new team and a new trackside leader, perhaps it rebooted their passion after a tough few years.”
And it didn’t take long for the best result of our return to be scored as part of the new partnership. Pierre Gasly qualified sixth, started from fifth and finished fourth in Bahrain, and Tanabe-san sees it as a crucial moment in the current era.
“At the second round in Bahrain, Gasly finished in fourth position. We had no idea what was going to happen with Toro Rosso and our PU target was reliability at first for 2018 and of course we kept working on the performance side as well and with a new team with young drivers our target was to run as much as we could with no trouble trackside.
“Winter testing was not too bad, but then in the first race we had a failure. After that we had no idea what our level was with Toro Rosso, but early in the season we had a good result and that meant people realised we could make it to the front, something that was very much reinforced by that result. I was just proud of our general progress. Not just in terms or reliability but also performance compared to the previous years, Honda improved very much on both fronts.”
If at the end of 2017 you had said that two years later Honda would be approaching our 100th race working with two teams, had scored podiums with both, and also wins and pole positions with one, it would probably have raised a few eyebrows. Tanabe-san admits it is a clear turnaround of which the whole company can be proud.
“Especially this year with Red Bull we’ve had good results. And with Toro Rosso we got a podium which is a very good result and means we can be pleased for both Red Bull and Toro Rosso. It took a long time to achieve that result. The level of technology is very high and we’ve gained more experience so we will keep working hard.
“We have not yet reached our goal, but they are all milestones along the way, and winning is a good result. Again, that encourages all the development staff. It shows our attitude to keep fighting and keep improving to achieve our goal.”
100 races is a time to reflect, but Tanabe-san doesn’t like looking backwards for too long. “We continue our relentless efforts to improve and achieve the target of winning world championships that we set ourselves in 2015. We have won championships in the past and I believe we can do it again in the future.”