MPH: After Honda, what next for F1's other manufacturers?


The reasons for Honda's F1 departure raise questions about the future of Renault and Mercedes in grand prix racing, writes Mark Hughes

Lewis Hamilton in the Mercedes leads Daniel Ricciardo's Renault

Miguel Medina - Pool/Getty Images

Honda’s departure from the fray at the end of next year is a worrying, but not altogether unexpected, development for F1. The reasons for its concluding what will by then be a seven-year hybrid programme should be more concerning for the category than the actual withdrawal itself. Those reasons point the way with even more certainty than before of the sport being off-message and off-brand to an automotive industry desperately trying to adapt to the climate crisis.

Honda’s Group COO Takahiro Hachigo announced: “Honda has decided to conclude its participation in the FIA F1 world championship as a power unit supplier at the end of the 2021 season… In 2011 Honda set a division to realise the joy and freedom of mobility and a sustainable society where people can enjoy life and since then we have been making progress in initiatives to eliminate our environmental footprint.

“At this time we have decided to further accelerate this initiative and strive to realise sustainable realities. We need carbon neutrality by 2050 to have a sustainable society. To this end, our current goal of electrifying two-thirds of our car sales by 2030 and to get to carbon neutrality by 2050 we need to further accelerate the introduction of carbon free technologies. So we will strengthen R&D in the areas of development of future power units and energy technologies and as part of this we have allocated human resources from energy management and fuel technologies in F1 activities to R&D of advanced power unit and energy technologies…

From the archive

“This is a huge challenge Honda must take on together with society. It’s not in consideration for short term revenues and profits but because we want to have the target of carbon neutrality.”

Honda believes its very existence – and, and by implication, those of any other current automotive manufacturer – is dependent upon solving the technological challenges of providing carbon-neutral transport 30 years from now. All of which seems to leave Formula 1 participation for Honda without either an R&D or marketing justification.

Which naturally has implications beyond just Honda. Increasingly, petrol-driven cars are going to be niche, enthusiast-focused machines. As such Renault’s rebranding of its team from next year to Alpine makes a certain sense. As Renault’s mainstream range steadily electrifies, it would seem a good idea to give the enthusiast models a different identity – and Alpine fits perfectly. But it’s an obscure brand by the standards of the automotive world, almost as if Renault was looking to camouflage its presence in F1 but concurrently add kudos to its sporting brand.

Ferrari is always an exception in such a context and F1 will always correlate strongly to its core values and how it markets its products. Leaving just Mercedes. It has a Formula E team. Its F1 team is part-owned already by Toto Wolff. It could actually be a less-than-calamitous exit for Mercedes if it too began to think along Honda’s lines. Especially if it continued to be an engine supplier, thereby gaining some revenue from all that investment. If that happened at the end of ’21 suddenly Red Bull might have a plug-in competitive power unit…

Stranger things have happened.