“One word to sum up the season so far? I mean, encouraging doesn’t feel good enough…
“I’d say: Delivering.”
Christian Horner is a happy man as he takes stock of how 2019 has gone for Aston Martin Red Bull Racing so far this year. The new partnership with Honda has already yielded two victories and a pole position, and as Formula 1 reconvenes after its summer break, the target is for more.
His optimism stems from the strong form that has seen Max Verstappen win two of the last four races, but also an overall harmony that runs from the top between Horner, F1 managing director Masashi Yamamoto and technical director Toyoharu Tanabe.
“I think the two sides are working very well together,” Horner says. “Communication is strong. The shared goals and objectives between the two companies are totally aligned and it’s been an enjoyable experience so far.
“Tanabe-san and Yamamoto-san are great characters. I mean, Tanabe-san’s a big racer, he’s got a big history. Behind that quiet, exterior is a passionate racer, as we saw when I sent him up to get the constructors’ trophy in Austria, the emotion that he was overwhelmed with.
“And with Yamamoto-san, again, you’ve got a really enthusiastic, full of energy, motivator and a keen racer. He has been known to pull out his results sheet from beating Jos Verstappen in a karting race in Japan back in the day! He’s a great energy and ally in the programme.”
With nine races remaining this season, Red Bull sits third in the constructors’ championship. Defending champion Mercedes looks out of reach, but Horner sees Ferrari as a realistic target as 44 points separate the two teams.
“I don’t think it’s unfeasible. When you think that Max has done the majority of scoring for us this year, I think that had we had two cars scoring at their true potential then arguably we should be ahead.
“We’ve won more races - obviously, two more races - than they have. Max is ahead, of both their drivers in the driver’s championship. So that’s our target for the second half of the year - to try and close that gap to them.”
In search of those extra points and in a bid to evaluate another driver in the race winning team, Red Bull has opted to swap drivers with Alex Albon partnering Max after the summer break, while Pierre returns to Toro Rosso. It’s a mid-season change that Horner says was made easier by both teams being Honda-powered and even more closely aligned this year than last.
“It was very easy. Both teams are under the same ownership, and both drivers are contracted to Red Bull.. People make a big deal about it but, the reality is, there’s four cockpits that come under the same ownership and in other sports you have an A-team and a B-team and it’s not unusual that if a player isn’t delivering, they’ll have some games in the B-team and, maybe, they get themselves back into the A-team. “That’s, very much, the same philosophy that we have with Aston Martin Red Bull Racing and Toro Rosso.”
Although overhauling Ferrari is a target, Horner insists he will not be simply looking at the end results come the season finale in Abu Dhabi when trying to measure performance. “I think you look at your performance relative to the front of the field. Last year we won four races, this year we’ve won two races so far, could have won three. The next nine races are all big events for us. You’ve got to look at circuits like Singapore, Mexico, Austin, as good opportunities. Japan would be a dream result. Where else are we going to? Brazil, arguably even Abu Dhabi… Most of them!”
A win in Japan certainly would be a dream result as Red Bull and Honda race at Suzuka as one team for the first time, with anticipation already building for what is likely to be a special weekend. “I think it’s going to be massive in Japan this year. I believe ticket sales are massively up. Japan is embracing Honda’s success and Max is becoming a hero, not just over here in Europe now but certainly in Japan as well. I’m not a big sushi fan and I said when we win a race, I would eat sushi. So, I’m going to have to do that at some point. We’ve won two now, so it’s a lot of sushi. I haven’t done it yet, I’m saving it for Japan!”
While only in the first year of the partnership, thoughts inevitably turn to the future and what can be achieved together. Horner says “Nobody is committed beyond the end of 2020 yet so they’re in the same situation as every team and manufacturer. Of course they’re doing a great job and certainly the intention is for this relationship to continue into the future. That’s very much the hope and I think the benefits for both parties would be from a long-term involvement. Who knows, we could see a Japanese driver in a Red Bull car if they’re good enough. There’s some promising ones coming through. Yuki Tsunoda looks like he’s an interesting talent - he’s just qualified in the top three in F3 here at Spa - and there are some promising young Japanese drivers out there.”
But before such long-term plans, there are more immediate matters to focus on this season, and Horner has a clear goal for the coming nine races to cap off the first year in partnership with Honda. “For us it’s important to finish the season absolutely on an upward trajectory because the regulations are stable going into next year. So, whatever we learn this year applies to next year. I’d like to see us continue to build… if there’s one word I want to use at the end of the season, it’s momentum.”