Expert opinion and analysis
Before long, Red Bull have to make a big decision: which engine they will use in Formula 1 from 2019.
They have been with Renault since 2007, and achieved four consecutive drivers’ and constructors’ championship doubles with their engine partner from 2010-13. But since the dawn of the hybrid era, Renault have failed to keep up with Mercedes, and latterly Ferrari, and Red Bull have been unable to keep their frustrations in check at the lack of performance.
After five years of tensions, public sniping, and only limited success, Renault ran out of patience and told Red Bull last September that they did not want to continue supplying them after the end of 2018, when their current contract expires. It’s not as simple as that, however. Renault also have a contract with F1 that runs until 2024. Indeed, they are the only team or engine manufacturer committed to the sport after 2020. And that contract contains a clause that says the French company must supply Red Bull if asked.
It was negotiated at the end of 2015, when Renault were seeking to return to F1 as a constructor and former F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone was playing hardball on prize money terms, not least because Red Bull, one of his
staunchest allies, were at that point in danger of not having an engine, even if that was a consequence of the team’s own actions in criticising Renault.
The clause effectively means Red Bull have a choice between Renault and Honda for 2019 onwards, as Mercedes and Ferrari will not countenance supplying them. It is a choice Red Bull planned for last summer, as part of the complicated negotiations that involved Mclaren splitting with Honda and switching to Renault.
Renault wanted Carlos Sainz, who was contracted to Red Bull, and Red Bull wanted an option to move away from Renault. So Renault released Sainz and gave Mclaren the engines that had been going to Toro Rosso. The Red Bull junior team got the Honda engines that had been Mclaren’s and Honda got a place to develop out of the limelight and intense scrutiny that involved supplying a grandee team with an all-time great in the cockpit.
The benefit for Red Bull was that with Renault engines in one of their cars and Honda in the other, and all data available to them about the chassis, they would be able to make a direct comparison between the two engines.
Twelve months ago, there would have been no contest. Honda were in dire trouble with reliability and performance was way down on the rest of the field. But things have improved as Honda have entered the second season of the new Mercedes-influenced engine concept they introduced in 2017.
Over the opening races of the 2018 season, it has become clear that Mclaren’s claims last year to have one of the best chassis and that they were being held back only by the Honda engine were wrong. The car was not as good as Mclaren thought, and the engine was nowhere near as bad as they claimed.
The Honda, in fact, has looked pretty decent in the Toro Rosso. Yes, the team had disappointing and uncompetitive races in Australia and China, but in Bahrain they were impressive. Pierre Gasly qualified sixth and finished fourth – something not possible with a poor engine on a circuit that ranks highly in terms of the importance of power for lap time.
The Honda remains the engine with the least performance out of the four in F1, but engineers spoken to by F1 Racing say that its deficit to the Renault is now as little as 9kw (12bhp) – a lot less than the 50bhp Mclaren thought it was last year.
Red Bull are also frustrated by continuing reliability problems with Renault. As of China, Daniel Ricciardo was already on his second of three permitted internal combustion engines, turbo and MGU-H and his second of two permitted energy store and control electronics.
Renault drivers Nico Hülkenberg and Carlos Sainz have also had second MGU-HS fitted after the discovery of a bearing problem. For all, engine penalties are already an inevitability this season.
Honda, though, have also had reliability problems, and
“I WANT TO BE WITH THE BEST CAR DANIEL RICCIARDO
are in the same position. Gasly suffered the first engine failure of the season early in the Australian Grand Prix. It was – as was often the case last year – an MGU-H problem, and it also damaged the internal combustion engine. Honda introduced a new turbo/mgu-h for Bahrain, incorporating reliability upgrades, which was fitted to both cars. So after three races, both Toro Rosso drivers had already used two of three permitted turbos and MGU-HS, and Gasly had also used two ICES.
Red Bull’s frustration is that Renault keep having the same problems with the same parts, although the same could also be said of Honda.
When does the decision have to be made? Renault want it done by the end of May, when engine manufacturers have to tell the FIA how many teams they will supply next year. But as Mclaren’s decision last year was not made until September, there is almost certainly some wriggle-room in that. Red Bull will likely want to wait until at least the Canadian GP, when both companies are planning to introduce performance upgrades.
Renault’s is said to be in the region of 30bhp; Honda’s 40bhp. If both come true – which is often not the case of upgrades in reality – that would make the engines neckand-neck on performance.
On balance, Red Bull seem to be swinging towards Honda. Insiders say that’s the way it’s going and Red Bull’s attitude to each company is different: constant frustration with Renault; very much positive surprise at what they have found with Honda.
Add into the mix that there are benefits in both financial and competitive terms to being Honda’s works partner rather than Renault’s customer – the engine is probably free, and Red Bull can influence design decisions, neither of which are the case with Renault – and it looks very much like it will be a Red Bull Racinghonda in 2019.
Toro Rosso are running the Honda engine this season and performed well in Bahrain (above) but reliability for both engines is still an issue
Both Honda and Renault plan engine upgrades for Canada. The success or failure of these could decide Red Bull’s engine partner for 2019