After 21 races, two pre-season tests, two in-season tests and over 100,000 miles of traveling, the 2018 Formula 1 season comes to a close.
For Toro Rosso Honda, it has been an historic year. The first as a partnership, and with it has come highs, lows, agony and ecstasy, often all mixed in during the same race weekend.
The final finishing result is ninth in the constructors’ championship, but that doesn’t tell half of the story.
“We were obviously extremely excited to start a new partnership and be a works partner,” Toro Rosso Chief Race Engineer Jonathan Eddols recalls. “Before we got to work closely together obviously we’d seen the difficulties that Honda’s previous partnership had had over a number of years and the way that was portrayed in the press. So before we started to work closely with Honda, that was the only information we had.
“However, we knew that they had an amazing history, a very successful history and as soon as we started working with Honda we realized that everything we’d seen in the press was totally different. It was so different to the way it had been portrayed in the media.
“Massively professional, extremely high level of technical ability, facilities that are second to none. We were pleasantly surprised with what we saw and how the relationship formed at the start.”
Toyoharu Tanabe started in the role of Honda F1 technical director at the beginning of this year, and after a solid pre-season he believes the whole team received a boost from Pierre Gasly securing fourth place at only the second round of the season in Bahrain.
“We started late last year,” Tanabe-san says. “It was a bit of a hard time to bring the car to the first test but we worked very closely together and we made it. The first test went well in terms of running. Then we started the season well - the second race in Bahrain was pretty nice! After that we had a difficult time, and then some races were good but some were bad.
“We have learned a lot, not only in terms of performance but also how to communicate with all the team members. Also in things like strategy meetings we built up good teamwork through the year.”
Pierre shone in Bahrain, with fourth place the best result for a Honda-powered car since we returned to Formula 1 in 2015, and he doesn’t hide how important that result was for both himself and the team.
“You know the answer!” Gasly smiles when asked for a season highlight. “Bahrain was a weekend difficult to describe because it was so unexpected that it is a bit like when you get a surprise from your friend or your family, you don’t expect something it always makes you even more happy. Bahrain was this kind of feeling that I could not believe what was happening.
“Especially with the following races and when you look at the overall performance of the package we had, it is still difficult to understand how we managed to get that fourth place in Bahrain. But when things are done, we will just take that with us, and clearly the best memory of my first complete season in F1.”
Both drivers were embarking on their first full seasons in Formula 1, with Brendon Hartley more experienced in other categories. The New Zealander admits a return to single-seat machinery was more challenging than expected, but with time came better results.
“What I’m really happy with and proud about is how I progressed and evolved,” Hartley says. “I changed my approach when I needed to, was strong under difficult circumstances, and a big part of any athlete or driver in this scenario is to make sure you finish the season stronger than you started. I can confidently say that I’ve done that.
“After seven years away from single seaters it maybe took some more adjusting than I initially thought it would. I’m really happy with the way I progressed through the season and finishing in a position where I’m outperforming my teammate on a consistent basis. Doing top races, understanding how to set the car up for the race not just qualifying. Working the tyres and working with the engineers.
“There were some missed opportunities early on, sometimes out of my control, sometimes very much things I could have done better. But that is history and I’m happy with how I progressed.”
Hartley likens his improvement to the way the Toro Rosso Honda partnership has developed, as different aspects of the team found more efficient and effective ways of working together.
“There has been progression from all sides, and Honda has been a big part of it. I feel I’ve definitely contributed to it with my background with very complicated hybrid systems and with the team and integration.
“The whole team has grown and it is also normal with a new driver in a team, which I was, that you learn about each other, the way you work, the way I get the most out of the engineers, and they out of me. It is always an evolution and I’m happy with the progression from all angles, the way we work at the race track.”
Brendon’s sentiments are echoed by Toro Rosso team principal Franz Tost, who for the first time was leading his team with the full focus of a power unit supplier, enjoying works status.
“That’s a big, new topic for Toro Rosso because we work together as an established team with an engine manufacturer that only returned to F1 recently and Honda has done a really good job during this season,” Tost says. “They improved their ability as well as the performance. They made big steps forward and I’m really looking forward to their cooperation next year.
“Of course it changes with the more you know each other, and the more you learn in Formula 1. You know you will always go to another race track that means, especially from the power unit management, you have to change something and this was developed over the first few months. And we have now reached quite a good level of understanding, including how to improve the cooperation and as a result, the performance.”
Tost has been in charge at Toro Rosso for 12 years now, overseeing numerous changes in that time. The evolution of the sport has seen the team running V10 engines, then V8s and now the immensely complex V6 turbo hybrids we develop today, while aerodynamic changes have taken place, too.
While it may be harder for Tost to fully appreciate those vast differences as he has been part of F1 as it has evolved over time, for Tanabe-san this year was his first back in the sport since 2008.
“It felt like a long year but also a very short year at the same time! I learned a lot about the latest Formula 1, things like the technology and management with the team. It was a very good year for me.
“Some areas are very similar to the Formula 1 I remember, or haven’t changed at all - people push very hard to win the race, and time is always moving quickly - but some areas, like the technical areas, are more complicated. There are more engineers involved with one car or one team, so I feel very much like the communication is even more important now.
“We also have a lot of support from the factory these days. Before we only had a fax or a telephone call, and later email, so some data transfer was there but the current one is always live. So information, analysis and communication is very much different from the past.”
Tanabe-san took on the role of F1 technical director for the first year of the new partnership, but despite previously working for Honda Performance Development (HPD) in the United States, on the company’s Indycar programme, he was fully aware of the past challenges faced by the F1 project. And from that he is proud of the strides that have been made this season in collaboration with Toro Rosso.
“In terms of reliability, unfortunately at the final race on Gasly’s car we had a failure but I can tell that it’s better than the previous years. Also the performance improvement through the year - especially at the end of the season - we could gain a lot of performance, so that was a positive result. We can be proud of these areas.”
As 2018 draws to a close, plenty of focus is already on 2019, when another new challenge will be faced. We will partner with Red Bull alongside Toro Rosso - the first time we have supplied two teams since returning to F1 - and with that comes anticipation for further progress.
“For Toro Rosso, the aim is that we will improve our performance because we finished in ninth position in the Constructors’ Championship and this is not a position we can be satisfied with,” Tost says. “We must be in the midfield.
“But regarding Honda, we achieved the goals. The problems we are facing to improve are on the car side, not the power unit side.
“That means the hope has to be that together with Red Bull Racing, Honda are able to win races and that they are in a position to fight for the championship.”
High hopes, and with them high pressure. But that’s why we’re in F1: To win.