Honda's engine deal with Aston Martin: why it couldn't leave F1


Three years ago, Honda suddenly said it was leaving F1. Today it announced a long-term engine deal with Aston Martin from 2026. Adam Cooper looks at what is behind the change of heart

Fernando Alonso leaves Aston Martin F1 pit garage

Honda will link-up with Aston Martin in 2026

Aston Martin

Honda and Aston Martin will become partners in Formula 1 from the 2026 season onwards when the new power unit regulations come into play.

Although it has been rumoured for some weeks, Wednesday’s confirmation of this marriage of convenience had to overcome the complications inherent in aligning the two brands, and yet it works for both sides.

There was no guarantee that Honda would still be in F1 in 2026 and beyond

Honda’s commitment to F1 with a works presence from 2026 is also good news for the sport, with the Audi and Ford names also participating under the new regulations that will be introduced for that season.

It also represents a dramatic about turn by Honda after the company announced back in October 2020 that it would withdraw at the end of the 2021 season, in essence to focus its R&D resources on electric road cars.

Red Bull successfully convinced the company to stay on board as a supplier until 2025 and the end of the current era of regulations, and thus far the rewards have been world championships with Max Verstappen in 2021 and 2022, with a third drivers’ title looking likely this season.

Honda and Aston Martin logos on Red Bull hospitality F1 building in 2019

Aston Martin was previously a sponsor of Honda-powered Red Bull

Grand Prix Photo

A lid on new development and the fact that maintaining the relationship with Red Bull was relatively cost-effective helped to extend the current partnership, but the new rules were another story, requiring substantial investment and commitment. There was, for a while, no guarantee that Honda would still be in F1 in 2026 and beyond.

It was precisely because it couldn’t count on Honda for the long-term Red Bull established its own powertrains facility in Milton Keynes, initially with the expectation that Porsche would bankroll it. When that deal fell apart Ford stepped in.

Why Honda changed its mind on F1

In the meantime Honda’s top management reassessed its priorities. Winning F1 races and championships was not without its appeal, and more importantly when the 2026 regulations were finally nailed down and agreed the extra electrical power element, and a move to sustainable fuel, gelled with Honda’s overall goals.

Significantly the 2026 rules are also based on a power unit manufacturer cost cap which makes it much easier to justify an ongoing involvement to the board of any manufacturer. It won’t escalate into a spending war, in other words.

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“The biggest key factor for this decision for us this time around was the direction that the new 2026 regulations is facing towards,” says Honda Racing Corporation boss Koji Watanabe.

“Which is moving towards carbon neutrality. And that direction or that was matched with our company’s goal moving into the future.

“That is the decisive key factor. So currently, the electrical power accounts for 20% or less, as opposed to the internal combustion engine, but the new regulation would require about 50% or more of electrification, which would move towards even further towards electrification.

“And I believe the technology for electrification would be useful for us in mass manufacturing EV vehicles in the future. And also the 2026 regulations to be newly installed would obligate us to go 100% towards carbon-neutral fuel.

“And that would require us to really think about how to integrate the new fuel with the internal combustion engine. And we also would have to think about how to make the efficiency optimised in order to speed up. And I think that direction matches with Honda’s direction.”

Aston Martin was obvious choice for Honda

Honda played a role in shaping those rules and some months ago formally threw its hat in the ring by declaring itself as an F1 manufacturer for 2026.

What it didn’t have until now, with Red Bull and AlphaTauri fully committed to the Ford deal, was a partner team.

And in truth there were not many options – it came down to the three teams that currently have customer Mercedes deals.

Feranando Alonso spins into gravel in McLaren Honda during 2015 F1 British Grand Prix

Honda and McLaren don’t share many happy memories of their last partnership

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Reunions with past partners Williams and McLaren were in theory options, although the latter would have been a little awkward given the disastrous 2015-’17 relationship. In the end Aston emerged as the logical choice.

Once you get your head around the brand confusion, and Aston’s wider commercial relationship with Mercedes, it makes so much sense.

As Watanabe notes, Aston has “momentum”, having jumped up the grid in 2023 and become a consistent podium challenger.

“The discussion didn’t start very long ago… there was a common passion to win”

The ambitious Lawrence Stroll has been pumping in funds, and progress on track has attracted outside sponsorship that has reduced his own commitment.

Technical director Dan Fallows (well known to Honda from his Red Bull days) and the other key people Stroll has hired have already had a big impact on the current car, and that can only become more apparent with the 2024 model.

Then there is the state-of-the art factory at Silverstone that the team is in the process of moving into, with an in-house wind tunnel to come on stream next year, so that the team will no longer rent time in the Mercedes facility.

Ex-McLaren boss sealed Aston Martin-Honda deal

The one missing ingredient was a works engine deal and the level of support that it brings. The Mercedes customer package had its advantages – not having to worry about designing and building a gearbox allowed extra focus elsewhere. But it was also restrictive, in that the team had to take what it was on offer from Brackley, including rear suspension elements. And that in turn created limits on aerodynamic development.

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Aston now has to establish a gearbox department, and logic suggests that it will probably have a first go at making its own unit for the last Mercedes car in 2025.

The other ace up Stroll’s sleeve was the presence in his management team of former McLaren boss Martin Whitmarsh. He was a key lieutenant of Ron Dennis for the bulk of the team’s successful first Honda era until 1992, and two decades after that relationship ended he was the key player in putting together the reunion that commenced in 2015.

By the time the first McLaren-Honda V6 hybrid ran in testing in late 2014 Whitmarsh was long gone, and he was thus untainted by the disastrous three years that followed, and which ended in acrimony with the two partners splitting up and McLaren opting initially to pay for Renault power.

Whitmarsh again played a major role in making the Aston deal happen.

“I was involved 10 years ago in encouraging them back to the sport, but I wasn’t here when they arrived,” he says. “Honda are racers, it was extraordinarily straightforward discussion. The discussion didn’t start very long ago. And we shared our ambitions, what we wanted to do in the sport.

“I think we quickly established that there was a common passion to win, and that the synergies were very, very strong. So it was a pretty straightforward approach. We want to win, Honda wants to win. And I think we can both see the strengths that the two partners bring to that partnership.”

Martin Whitmarsh in Aston Martin F1 pit garage in 2023

Whitmarsh ‘s existing Honda relationship helped smooth negotiations

NurPhoto via Getty Images

Knowing Honda as well as he does Whitmarsh will also make sure that the new partnership won’t fall apart, and won’t descend into an engine/chassis blame game if things don’t go to plan.

“I think that you’ve got to have a respectful partnership,” he says. “I think you’ve got to listen to one another, and make sure that you get the right balance. Inevitably, when you’re designing the chassis and a PU there are various trade-offs. I think Honda is a very polite and correct and thorough partner.

“I think it’s quite easy for a European racing culture to not listen as much as it ought and should do during those discussions. We’re a new and growing team with big ambitions that I think hopefully is already starting to listen as we embark on this partnership.

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“I’ve obviously visited Sakura in the in the run up to this announcement, I’m very confident that Honda has incredible facilities, great passion, great engineers. They’ve made a lot of progress.”

Whitmarsh also highlights the appeal of the move to sustainable fuel for 2026 as a key parameter for Honda, and the team’s own deal with Aramco gels perfectly with that.

“It’s a new era for F1,” he says. “And it’s a substantial and probably unspoken technical challenge that’s ongoing at the moment.

“And, again, we’re extremely fortunate, I think, to have really the leading exponents in that area with Aramco. So, I think that that partnership between Honda and Aramco will be very important, very critical.

“And I think we’re blessed with two incredible partners here. I’m very confident we’re going to have a great power unit and for our part, we will try and retain the sort of humility, listen to our partners, and make sure we make the right decisions together.”

“Difficult” for Aston Martin to win with Mercedes

The bottom line is that Aston has outgrown the Mercedes relationship, and if it is to fulfil Stroll’s ambitions of winning the World Championship it has to go its own way.

“I think we’ve got to be clear,” says Whitmarsh. “Mercedes have been great partners for the team. And they remain that. They’re in it to win. And clearly, we’re here to win as well. So ultimately, there is some incompatibility in those two missions. And that’s why we’ve taken the decision. I think the first and obvious example was, we currently share a wind tunnel with them.

Building materials outside new Aston Martin F1 factory

New factory and wind tunnel is evidence of investment in team

“And yet, we’re having to spend a huge amount of money to build our own wind tunnel, which is only four or five miles from the quite adequate one that we use.

“But the nature of F1 is if you want to win, it means beating Mercedes and it’s extremely difficult to beat an organisation as good as Mercedes if you’re reliant on them for intellectual property, facilities, components.

“Team Silverstone, as you know, has got a great tradition of delivering big bang for small bucks. But we’re in a different position now, the Aston Martin brand, the ambition of Lawrence Stroll, and now great partners like Honda, we are here to win. And therefore, you’ve got to have the complete integration of facilities and process and approach.”

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Whitmarsh stresses that such an approach will be more important than ever before: “The 2026 technical regulations I think are really going to demand a very, very substantial, full integration, and not just the sort of physical integration of components, but the operational integration, to be able to deliver and to win, to a much greater extent.

“So in my view, it is very, very difficult to win consistently championships without a full works relationship, which is why we’ve made this decision and why we’re delighted to have a fantastic partner like Honda.”

That’s exactly what Dennis said when McLaren’s return to Honda was announced. The signs are this time the new partnership will be a lot more successful.

Honda never stopped F1 development after Red Bull announcement

Back in 2015 Honda had had to build up its F1 department and knowledge from scratch, but this time it will simply be transitioning from one project to another, and Audi and Ford/Red Bull will be the new kids on the block.

Aside from Honda’s shaky relationship with Fernando Alonso – who will be approaching 45 when the 2026 season begins, a year after his current contract expires – the big question mark is how much the company backed off on development during the limbo period when it wasn’t as committed to R&D for 2026 as Ferrari, Mercedes and Renault. It is apparent work never stopped completely.

Fernando Alonso sits in McLaren Honda pit garage in 2015

Describing Honda’s power unit as a “GP2 engine” didn’t endear Alonso to the manufacturer

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“I’d like to mention that we have been continuously supplying engines upon request from Red Bull even for the current F1,” says Watanabe. “So therefore, we are still in operation for the ongoing F1 races as well.

“And as for the new regulations to be introduced from 2026, we have continuously engaged in studies of the important factors in terms of the power units. So therefore, we have not totally withdrawn from our R&D activities.

“So unlike the previous time where we were fully withdrawn, we have already been engaging in development.”