Honda's bizarre Suzuka F1 record that's being reversed by Verstappen


A third Japanese GP win for Max Verstappen represents uncharacteristic home race success for Honda. Mark Hughes tracks its dismal Suzuka F1 record — and whether Verstappen might join Aston Martin-Honda in 2026

Alain Prost leads Ayrton Senna in 1988 Japanese GP while inset Max Verstappen leads Sergio Perez in 2024

Prost leads McLaren-Honda team-mate Senna at Suzuka in 1988. Inset, Verstappen and Perez in 2024

Paul-Henri Cahier / Clive Mason/Getty Images

Another race, another Max Verstappen victory last weekend. He’s now won the last three grands prix around Suzuka. Remarkably, those three races represent 60% of all Honda engine victories in the 34 years the Japanese Grand Prix has been held at Suzuka, a circuit owned and conceived by Honda itself. For an engine manufacturer with such extensive periods of F1 domination in its history, its relatively meagre haul around its own track is bizarre.

Apart from Verstappen’s wins in 2022/23/24, Honda has powered the winner only twice: in 1988 (with Ayrton Senna’s McLaren) and 1991 (Gerhard Berger’s McLaren). Honda’s first period of F1 dominance – in the back of the Williams of Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet – was missed by Suzuka, which only came onto the F1 calendar in 1987. But its next period of domination in the late 80s/early 90s lasted six years. Take a sample from any other event which covered those years and you will find a far greater correlation between Honda’s pre-eminence and hard results.

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Ironically, the title-clinching implications of the race’s late-season placement in the calendar (until this year) has been responsible for the loss of at least one of the wins, maybe two, which would otherwise have been nailed-on. The collisions between Senna and Prost in the races of 1989 and ’90 as they fought out the destiny of the world championship might conceivably have yielded two Honda wins which otherwise elude the record books (though Prost was fighting for the win in a Ferrari in ’90).

Honda’s golden period of F1 dominance with Williams and McLaren lasted from 1986 to 1991 and thereafter Renault was in the ascendancy and by ’93 Honda was gone from F1. Since that time it has made two returns. That of 2001-08 didn’t trouble the record books, but that of 2015-date has been a remarkable one, with a truly awful start in the back of the 2015 McLarens building to an all-time record-breaking dominance in partnership with Red Bull. Last year it even repeated its own ‘every race except one’ victory seasonal tally of 1988, but did so with a longer sequence of unbroken wins than any in history.

Indeed the partnership has been so successful it even escaped Honda’s attempts at leaving F1 again. It was supposed to bow out at the end of ’21, but a pro-F1 core in the racing arm worked in conjunction with Red Bull at overturning that decision, with the help of greatly re-aligned financial terms. In the era of frozen technical specs, it became feasible for Honda to become more of a paid supplier rather than a technical partner and in the first part of ’22 there was not even any Honda badging on the cars. That arrangement (but with the badges) continues through to the end of this formula. The ’26-on Honda programme (with Aston Martin) will be a sort of hybrid of those two business models, with the factory conceiving and developing the engines rather than just producing them, but on a paid supplier basis.

Toro Rosso of Max Verstappen and Sauber of Felipe Nasr either side of Jenson Button in 2015 Japanese GP

Jenson Button planted in the middle of Suzuka straight in 2015, between Max Verstappen, driving for Toro Rosso, and the Sauber of Felipe Nasr

Grand Prix Photo

Back in 2015, with Honda in its first season back still struggling to get to grips with the nuances of the hybrid formula, it endured a particularly embarrassing home race. Their energy recovery system was sorely inadequate and the small turbo which had enabled the ‘size zero’ packaging in the McLaren brought further efficiency losses. Given that Suzuka doesn’t feature much in the way of braking over the lap, the battery was being starved and the car would suddenly lose the 160bhp of electrical assistance very early on the straights. Given it was already around 40bhp down to the other PUs, that 200bhp offset as it ran out of deployment made the car something of a hazard on the straights, potentially catching drivers of other cars on full deployment by surprise.

Both Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso were deliberately positioning themselves in the middle of the track down the straights – not for defensive purposes, but so to give following drivers the space to take evasive action when the deployment suddenly stopped. But it was Alonso who really rubbed in that pain by twice complaining after being overtaken that it was embarrassing, that he felt like he was driving ‘a GP2 engine’, surely knowing that such comments would be broadcast for the world – and Honda – to hear.

Fernando Alonso sits on a deckchair at Interlagos while his 2015 McLaren F1 car is pushed away

Deckchair moment for Alonso after McLaren-Honda failure in Brazil

Peter J Fox/Getty Images

Max Verstappen points to Honda badge after 2019 Austrian GP

Verstappen endeared himself to the Japanese after first Red Bull-Honda win in Austria, 2019

Lars Baron/Getty Images

Alonso has not been popular with Honda management, particularly at the corporate level, ever since. Verstappen by contrast is treated with total reverence, comparable to that previously reserved for Ayrton Senna. With Alonso’s current team Aston Martin powered by Honda from 2026 there may yet be an uneasy rapprochement between them. But it can be imagined what Honda’s opinion may be as there remains any possibility – however slight – of having Verstappen there instead. The threads of history are long and can come to have real significance.