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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


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

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