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BARRETTO: Are Honda poised for another return to F1?
Honda have flitted in and out of Formula 1 like a boomerang over the last six decades, the Japanese power unit manufacturer enjoying the highs of supreme success and the lows of gut-wrenching defeat.
Their most recent seven-year-stint stint, which technically ended in 2021, saw them endure both extremes.
READ MORE: Honda not closing door on F1 return as they watch 2026 engine discussions
It began with an ill-fated reunion with McLaren in 2015, which yielded very little and led to a bitter divorce, and ended with Max Verstappen guiding a Honda-powered Red Bull to the drivers’ world title just months after Honda had announced that they would be leaving the sport.
What was peculiar about Honda’s last withdrawal is that not only did they quit F1 just when they had cracked the engine formula and were finally reaping the rewards, but they left one foot in by continuing to work with Red Bull through the team’s newly-created Red Bull Powertrains in a sort of unofficial capacity. Essentially, they continued to do the work and invest – but didn’t get the plaudits for doing so.
They had their reasons. The early years of pain had taken their toll on the Japanese manufacturer’s board; the repeated failures – while spending nine-figure sums annually on the project – was embarrassing for them.
A change in leadership at Honda meant F1 wasn’t so high on the agenda for the top brass, and they cited the wider company’s goal of carbon neutrality as a reason to divert resources away from the sport.
But it is their culture not to let anyone down which meant they continued to support Red Bull, while the energy drinks-backed firm built up their own power unit division.
READ MORE: Honda and Red Bull extend power unit support deal until 2025
In the meantime, there was some senior management at Honda who wanted to stay in F1, especially as they were now winning. In their eyes, competing in the top categories of motorsport is part of Honda’s DNA.
And as F1 began plans to evolve their engine formula from 2026 onwards, which included a greater focus on electrification and battery power, as well as the introduction of 100% sustainable fuel, Honda realised a lot of their ambitions synced well with those of the sport.
And so the boomerang started its curve back towards F1 once more, through their Honda Racing Corporation (HRC) brand, with HRC first taking an observer role in the 2026 regulations and then increasing their brand exposure with Red Bull, which saw the power unit for this season renamed Honda-RBPT.
They were dealt a blow when Red Bull chose to partner Ford from 2026 (while still fulfilling their deal with Honda that runs to the end of 2025) meaning Honda would need a new team to partner with if they wanted to move both feet back into F1.
They took their interest in a full-scale return up a notch when they signed up to the 2026 regulations. This allows them to be part of and contribute to meetings that will define the new formula. It does, however, remain early days.
READ MORE: Horner explains why Red Bull opted to partner with Ford instead of ‘incredible company’ Honda for 2026
As HRC President Koji Watanabe told me in Bahrain, “we don’t have any concrete plan to return to F1” – and they do not have anyone specifically working on 2026 just yet. But they do intend to play a role in the upcoming technical meetings and use this year to evaluate a return internally.
“I want to see a bit more about the rules and I need more time to discuss internally with Honda [before they decide whether or not to return],” he said.
Watanabe does have time – but not much of it. If Honda are to be competitive and sufficiently prepared for a full-scale return in 2026, he says they need to decide by “the end of the year”. In an ideal world he says “it’s better to decide” with which team that will be at the same time, but it “could be” later.
Multiple teams have had informal chats with Honda about a return. Sources say McLaren are one of those squads, with the British team also having talked to Red Bull Powertrains about a possible new deal as they evaluate whether to continue their partnership with Mercedes beyond 2025.
Of those informal talks, Watanabe said: “It’s normal to communicate with each other. It’s an F1 family. It’s quite normal to talk. They have been informal chats. We haven’t said anything about the detail of conditions of any potential deal.”
READ MORE: From despair to tears of joy – How Honda became a winning force again
Aston Martin and Williams, both currently powered by Mercedes and whose deals with the German manufacturer extend to taking other parts from them, including the gearbox, are also genuine contenders for a Honda link up.
Williams enjoyed great success with Honda in the late 1980s, while as Aston Martin continue their upward trajectory towards the sharp end of the field, joining up with a works manufacturer to make that final step to become genuine title contenders will certainly be on the agenda.
Honda aren’t the only option for those teams, mind.
Aside from long-time engine players Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault, the new Red Bull-Ford partnership is open to taking on customers, while Audi’s debut in 2026 – when they will make Sauber their works team – are also potential power unit suppliers.
There remains interest from other OEMs (original equipment manufacturers, i.e. other automotive car makers), too, some publicly showing their interest, like Porsche, while others have chosen to keep their enquires more private.
And Honda will face a big challenge scaling their operation up so they can compete at a high level from the off. Most staff working in the Milton Keynes base moved across to Red Bull Powertrains, while those at their Sakura headquarters in Japan were moved onto other projects. Recreating that set-up in less than three years is no small feat.
WATCH: A brief history of the evolution of Formula 1 engines
But Honda have never been afraid of a challenge – and they proved in this stint in F1 that they can build a World Championship-winning power unit. And unlike their return in 2015, they won’t be starting from scratch, as the 2026 rules aren’t set to be formed from a completely blank sheet of paper.
“We are really interested in the top categories, such as F1,” said Watanabe. “All HRC members want to decide the direction, they want to know the direction.”
A fifth chapter in Honda’s on-off relationship with F1, then, remains very much on the cards.
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