Many were puzzled Toro Rosso chose to ditch Renault power for Honda. But with nearly a quarter of the F1 season now behind us, the evidence suggests the Italian team have made a shrewd move.
Reliability, reliability, reliability. That was the mantra at Honda's Sakura research and development facility and UK base in Milton Keynes over the winter. And it appears to have paid off.
Boosted by the decision to keep the same concept and develop it, Honda were able to focus on getting the smaller details right, while making progress with the quality of their correlation tools.
There have been blips. After a super slick pre-season test, Gasly’s MGU-H and turbo failed in Australia, causing damage to the internal combustion engine. But their response was encouraging.
A fix was found and implemented quickly and the MGU-H has now lasted four straight races. That might not sound like much. But considering how that engine component has caused so much grief for Honda since it returned to F1 in 2015, this is a breakthrough.
“It was a hardware problem,” Honda Technical Director Toyoharu Tanabe told Formula1.com during an interview in the Japanese manufacturer’s hospitality unit. “We think we have cured the problem now – but we still haven’t run enough races.”
Tanabe is right to be cautious given Honda’s track record. He is also under no illusions of the challenge they still face to catch up rival manufacturers Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault.
“We have many areas that we need to work on to catch the other manufacturers,” said Tanabe. “We are working hard. And we will keep working hard.
“We are a new team. From the last race, we’re still learning a lot, technical things, also preparation at the track, how to work with the team efficiently. We’re still learning.”
The push for performance
Getting reliability under control is one thing. Maintaining that while pushing for more performance is quite another – and something Honda has struggled to do on their F1 return.
“Concerning performance and reliability, we always need to compromise,” said Tanabe. “If you push too hard on the performance, sometimes you can have reliability problems.
“We evaluate how much we can push on the performance, then we see the result in reliability. Then we try to find a compromise.”
Drivers are limited to three each of internal combustion engines, turbochargers and MGU-Hs and only two MGU-Ks, control electronics and energy stores.
Gasly has already moved onto his second ICE, turbo and MGU-H, while team mate Brendon Hartley’s crash in Spain required a whole new engine so he’s on his third turbo and MGU-H, meaning any further change of those elements will result in a grid penalty – and there are still 16 races to go.
But in terms of engine failures, Honda have vastly improved. At this point last year, Honda had used 40 components between Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne. Vandoorne was on his fifth turbo, MGU-H, energy store and control electronics. This year, Honda has used just over half – 22.
Attention has turned to performance and that is the focus on the next update.
“It’s not very easy to make big steps of improvement,” said Tanabe. “Of course, we are planning to apply update items during the season. At the moment, we cannot tell you when they are coming.”
Balancing development aggression
Honda are attempting to get through the season with as few penalties as possible, rather than bring updates as soon as possible in a bid to improve the overall performance quickly.
That means they will aim to introduce updates when a fresh unit is scheduled to be introduced. If a team is working on a perfect schedule, evenly spreading the use of components, they would look to change around Canada and Singapore.
Honda are already off schedule, which is due to a mix of unreliability and driver error, but there is still scope to reduce the size of penalties dramatically compared to previous years.
Last year, they accrued a total of 380 grid places for engine-related penalties, compared to 320 for Renault and 20 each for Ferrari and Mercedes.
It’s believed the Japanese manufacturer is working towards introducing an update in Canada, with the focus on the internal combustion engine, and an anticipated power boost of around 20bhp.
But while last year Honda introduced updates aggressively in a bid to prove to McLaren that they could make progress, this year, they will only introduce them if they are confident in its potential.
Back at Sakura, work continues to improve correlation from the dynos, where they test the engines and possible upgrades, to the track.
“There are many areas we need to improve correlation,” said Tanabe. “It’s not perfect enough. In some areas, we have good correlation. But in others, we need to improve.”
Change in management paying off
Honda are benefitting from the board’s decision to split former F1 chief Yusuke Hasegawa’s role in two. It was felt he had too much to do. Now, Tanabe focuses on trackside operations, while Yasuaki Asaki is in charge of engine development. The two work closely together.
Tanabe is believed to have improved communication between the race team and factory while also utilising his experience – he worked as an engineer for Gerhard Berger and Jenson Button in F1 – and highly-rated man-management skills to get more out of the trackside team.
There’s a greater harmony inside Honda and the same can be said of their relationship with Toro Rosso. They are excelling now the pressure has been lifted. How long that lasts remains to be seen, particularly as talks are at an advanced stage with Red Bull regarding supplying them for 2019.
That would be quite a move by Honda, considering their future in F1 was uncertain at some points last year. Taking on another team, one which would increase expectation, is a big step. As it stands, there is uncertainty inside the Japanese manufacturer that it is the right thing to do.
On the other hand, it’s a massive boost that a team of Red Bull's calibre wants to partner with Honda, after everything that has happened with McLaren over the last three years.
And Honda are showing that given the right conditions, it can make improvements and get on top of problems quickly. A lot rests on what their next performance update brings.
That will determine whether Red Bull decides whether they want to take the risk. Then it’s up to Honda to say yes. But for now – they are focusing on Toro Rosso and closing the gap to their rivals. As it stands, they are making good progress.