The countdown to lights out in Australia is being measured in a matter of days, and soon it will be just hours. To fans, it’s all about to get very serious. To the teams, it has been very serious for a long time.
And teams is a term Honda is now getting used to, as Aston Martin Red Bull Racing has been added to Scuderia Toro Rosso as another partner. With that addition came the major task of expanding in terms of personnel, as Formula 1 technical director Toyoharu Tanabe explains.
“We have exactly doubled our number of operational people,” Tanabe-san says. “We have split last year’s personnel who worked with Toro Rosso 50-50 between the two teams, in order to evenly distribute team members with previous on-track experience.
“Then we filled a lot of positions from Japan and also from other experienced engineers. In Milton Keynes – for our dyno and workshop area - we hired externally too. So it has been an expansion.
“Japanese people, Japanese culture and the Japanese language are all very different from the European way of doing things. On top of that, some new, young Japanese engineers have joined the team. It’s their first time doing a trackside job and they will have a lot to learn in a short space of time. Others are European, some of them have experience trackside and some don’t. So overall, in terms of how we run our operation, it is going to be a very interesting first few months of the new season.
“Now, inside of Honda we have a mixture of Japanese, European and English-based people who are communicating with the teams, so it’s been an interesting exercise building up our two groups of Honda people to work with the two teams.”
While Honda has been communicating with Red Bull Technology for the past 18 months thanks to Toro Rosso, there are numerous Red Bull team members who are building new relationships.
Pierre Wache shares the same title as Tanabe-san, and the Red Bull technical director has not found communication to be an issue despite the very different culture and backgrounds of the two parties.
“It is a new partnership, and we have to learn how to communicate with a new company, because we were working with our previous engine supplier for 12 years,” Wache says.
“From last year onwards it has been fantastic, a very good surprise. Honda are very open-minded people and we have the same goal in terms of winning races and putting the resources in place to achieve that. We have the same mindset and I think that is already helping the relationship.
“The main thing is when you meet new people, there’s a learning process about how to communicate with one another. You get to know them first, so it’s not only a relationship with the company or the organisation.
“I think on my side, as a Frenchman I can understand language barriers more than many people but I don’t see that as a difficulty with Honda. I think it’s more a learning process when you work with new people and you understand the structure of the new company because the people involved are very keen to make a partnership. That’s meant everything has come together smoothly.”
As Christian Horner highlighted ahead of pre-season testing, last year’s experience with Toro Rosso has helped with the smooth transition that Wache references. And Wache insists that isn’t just from a communication or working relationship standpoint, but from a technical one too.
“The season with Toro Rosso was very beneficial for us in terms of integration of the drivetrain - like the gearbox installation - and how we can work with Honda in terms of things like what the engine can deliver in terms of mapping, in terms of control for our gearbox.
“Most of the things about the integration with Toro Rosso helped us to be able to understand more about the engine, and also to help Honda develop some aspects of the engine that could suit our car.
“I think the integration is fantastic for multiple reasons. As a design aspect, the engine gives us the possibility to integrate very nicely in the chassis, but the integration work comes from both sides.
“We are compromising some aspects of the chassis and the same goes for the engine side, to have the best compromise overall in terms of performance. It could be on the cooling side, it could also be down to Honda to compromise on the exhaust in some way, or to help us to find some downforce or find some mechanical grip.
“This open mindedness and discussion we have them is what we didn’t have before with our previous partnership, because we were not a ‘works’ team. Now Honda is dedicated to the Red Bull family, so that helps us to have a fantastic integration and hopefully extract the most out of the performance.”
The design and integration has been a process that Tanabe-san has been heavily involved in, but it wasn’t simply a case of finding the best compromise for Red Bull and passing that on to Toro Rosso. Instead, both teams were involved and the way the power unit is with the chassis is slightly different for both teams.
“We had a lot of discussions about how to make a good car, a faster car,” Tanabe-san says. “So the team side - the chassis side - told us what they wanted, then they asked us: ‘What do you want to do? What design do you want?’
“So we put both designs on the table and then both sides could say we don’t like this or that, and then find out the best compromised design for the performance of the car. That’s how we decided.
“Of course in that process there’s a lot of difficulty, so a nice installation means we had to make it tight. Then there were back and forth discussions and emails, drawing changes etc, but not only for Red Bull - for Toro Rosso as well. It was all through Red Bull Technology.
“Of course there are some things different between the two power units in the detailed areas of their installation into the chassis - a joint angle or position - but the basic design is the same for both teams.”
The power unit concept remains the same as last year, but has been updated in a number of areas, with those improvements tested during this year’s pre-season that saw two cars running Hondas for the first time. As well as extra driver feedback came extra data, which has so far been one area of focus in the gap between the end of testing and the Australian Grand Prix.
“We have been reviewing the data and disassembled the power units used in testing,” Tanabe-san explains. “We need to check each part very carefully. From the outside it’s mainly for installation issues, if something is scraped or touching or something like that, as well as the vibration effect. Then inside we need to evaluate how it looks and what’s the wear rate of components.
“We have a lot of data from the eight days, as well as driver feedback. We saw some issues there. We tried to fix some issues during the test but some we needed to work on a little bit more deeply. So we went back to the dyno to prepare the calibration for the first race. So we are working on the hardware side and the calibration side.
“Also we are reviewing our trackside support management. What was wrong? What was positive? How can we improve the negatives or the overall support performance at the track?”
On the Red Bull side, the focus is on set-ups and car development ahead of Melbourne, but the early signs from the new power unit partnership have not altered any of the overall targets for this season.
“We can have some anticipation of what the performance is after testing but not a true picture,” Wache admits. “What is difficult is we don’t know exactly what level of fuel was being used by others in testing. And especially nowadays compared to ten years ago, the engine mode you use can affect the performance you see on track so much. On top of that you don’t know what other people will bring to Melbourne, which is a different type of track to Barcelona.
“Honda is bringing the performance that we hoped for, and it’s already a big step forward to bring us close to the battle at the front. We were quite far behind at the beginning of last season, and the main hope is to be in the battle.
“The long term target is to win, no doubt about that.”