Will F1’s new manufacturers avoid a repeat of Honda’s troubled return?

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The newly-announced Audi Formula 1 project is already underway, south-east of Germany in Bavaria, just down the road from the company’s headquarters. Making their F1 debut in 2026 as an engine supplier, the company has a huge challenge in front of them as they look to go up against teams like Mercedes and Ferrari: Vast F1 operations with massive experience and stacks of trophies.

Audi expect their project to be fully up and running by the end of 2022. The company is expanding its motorsport facility at Neuburg an der Donau, with test benches for F1 engine testing already set up and extra personnel pulled from their Formula E project, which they canned at the end of last year, to help. Yet the challenge is vast.

Recent history isn’t on their side, as the example of the last new manufacturer to enter F1 demonstrates. After Honda announced in 2013 they would return to Formula 1 for their fourth spell in the sport, the team struggled to deliver on its comeback just two years later. The Honda-powered McLarens sunk to ninth out of the 10 teams, retirements were common, and when the power unit ran its performance was so poor Fernando Alonso humiliated Honda management by calling it a “GP2 engine” on his radio. During their home race.

Honda arrived in the second year after significant changes had been made to the Formula 1 power unit regulations, with F1 cars now using sophisticated hybrid systems. The new power unit regulations were introduced a year before Honda returned to the sport. The existing manufacturers had already been refining their power units for several years and enjoyed a useful head-start over Honda, who only started developing theirs in 2013.

McLaren split from Honda after three difficult years
Compared to that, Audi will at least have the advantage that all teams will be starting from the beginning for 2026. But the existing manufactures will have the advantage of understanding how the current iterations of these unique engines work. That experience could prove crucial for the development of the new units, which are based on the same V6 turbo block.

In 2026, teams will face even more challenges regarding the power unit regulations. These include changes to elements such as the battery, which demands a completely reworked energy store produced using recycled material, which must be recyclable itself. The fuel mix will be radically different, meaning the V6 and the turbocharger will need a considerable amount of research and development. A higher proportion of electrical energy will be used for propulsion, the demands of which will mean a much denser, higher-capacity energy store is needed, with a design that’s stipulated to contain recycled and recyclable elements. The MGU-K will likely share a similar design principle to its predecessors but require reinforcement in order to handle higher voltages.

But Audi is not the only competitor on the grid starting from scratch. Red Bull decided last season they would supply power units to their team from 2022 onwards, and also intend to develop their own 2026 power unit.

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Though Red Bull has been receiving technical support from Honda, the team built their own production facility at their Milton Keynes base in preparation. With the current V6 hybrid turbo power unit regulations changing in 2026, the idea is for Red Bull to fly solo, despite talk they could team up with Porsche. There is also speculation Honda would like to return to F1 for a fifth time after their previous seven-year stint. Motorsport boss Masashi Yamamoto admitted last year he hoped “history repeats” if they can “convince senior management”.

Horner says final agreement on engine rules came late
Christian Horner, Red Bull’s team principal says “you absolutely shouldn’t underestimate the scale of the challenge” of taking on the existing manufacturers under the 2026 engine regulations. “I mean, it’s massive when you look at the current incumbents that we’re competing against, the longevity, the continuity that they’ve had.

“Of course, a company like Audi’s reputation talks for itself. But the scale and the size of the challenge, as we’ve seen ourselves at Red Bull, is enormous, especially when you’re starting from scratch. [But] it’s exciting, because it is a challenge and you have to believe anything is possible.”

Originally set to come into play for 2025, the engine regulations were delayed until 2026. Teams also unanimously voted for an engine freeze to begin from the start of 2022, meaning existing manufactures won’t face the huge cost of developing the current and new power units simultaneously.

“Thankfully the regulations were delayed 12 months to 2026,” Horner continued, “otherwise, I don’t think you would have seen either potentially Red Bull or Audi participating in the sport.”

Nonetheless Horner makes it clear three-and-a-half years is a tight timeframe to product engines to the new formula. “Even 2026… You know, it’s 10 past midnight and Cinderella’s already buggered off.

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“So it’s tight, but that’s Formula 1 and that’s some of the creativeness and drive that happens within the teams and, you know, it’s going to be exciting to see more power unit manufacturers on the grid for 2026.”

Mercedes expect brand rivals Audi will be up to the challenge
Coming from a more traditional manufacturer background, Mercedes High Performance Powertrains managing director Hywel Thomas believes Audi’s motorsport and automotive heritage will help it to meet the challenges that all power unit manufacturers must face

“Someone like Audi is not new to making combustion engines, they’re not new to making racing engines, and they’re not new to electrical racing,” said Thomas. “So whilst I’m sure there will be a lot of new technology, a lot of differences they’ll have, I’m sure, a very capable engineering team and a very capable operations team to back that up. It’s going to be tough, but then it’ll be tough for all of us.

“We’ve all got the same constraints in terms of the cost cap. We’ve all got the same constraints for physics.”

All manufacturers will face similar challenges over the next period. Despite Audi giving themselves four years to get up to speed – they notified the FIA of their intention to enter at the end of last year – the magnitude of the obstacles ahead, highlighted by Horner, show how much of a hurdle the personnel face.

Attracting Audi into F1 is undoubtedly a coup for the sport. Compared to Honda, they have more time on their side, but the hard work is just beginning for the four rings. Will they have the results to show for it in a few years’ time?

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Author information

Claire Cottingham
Claire has worked in motorsport for much of her career, covering a broad mix of championships including Formula One, Formula E, the BTCC, British...

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  • 6 comments on “Will F1’s new manufacturers avoid a repeat of Honda’s troubled return?”

    1. The funny thing with the more ‘fickle’ manufacturers is they often walk on their terms regardless of whether its a good idea or not. Honda jumped out basically as they built a championship winning engine with a high possibility of winning this one too but despite their involvement, their name isn’t here. It happened before in 09 with Brawn, too. That of course was the recession where we saw BMW Sauber almost kill Sauber off completely after walking because of a bad year, and Toyota calling it quits after spending a mountain of cash for years. We do have teams like Ferrari that seem part of the furniture for F1 but the others always seem considerably less stable and less committed.

      These engines turn up with big fanfare but they often take their toys and leave due to factors outside F1. ‘Private’ teams, that are here to race and that’s largely all they do should be protected more – they’ll be here long after the manufacturers have had their fun and gone.

    2. Honda F1 return was confirmed in mid-2013 and the 2014 hybrid formula was way more complex than the 2026 rules. Honda had less time to tackle a more complicated project than the VW group who are so arrogant to compete on a level playing field. The 2026 engine formula is about the ICE role being marginalized and about the MGU-H being removed… It’s a formula where the engines are not a differentiating factor.

      RBR have lobbied hard for the current engine freeze to be introduced on the pretext that they cannot develop the current PUs. The results are obvious for everyone and this is expected to last till 2026. RBR also dominated F1 when the engines were “frozen” and it was all about the aerodynamics.

      So Porsche partnered with RBR to be competitive out of the box. As for Audi, they themselves should expect that they need more than the PU to compete at forefront of F1. It will all be down to their investment in Sauber but as we have seen with Aston Martin the results will not be guaranteed even with huge investments.

      1. Exactly, with so many avenues of development already closed, the new engine regulations are paving the way for a series dominated by utterly pointless aerodynamic development. F1 cars, by their very nature as open wheel cars, are inefficient and produce huge amounts of drag. Having teams spend tens of millions on creating dozens of ridiculously sculpted mini-wings is of no use to anyone.

        On a more positive note, at least this time they realised that simply freezing existing engines is a bad idea, as it locks in advantages for multiple years.

    3. Rumor is that Porsche’s entry is no longer a guarantee as talks with Red Bull have become complicated.

      Porsche are said to want to buy the team, Horner & others within the team are against it & to complicate matters further key personnel from Honda have been seen in the paddock in recent races amid talk they want to fully return to F1 with Red Bull, Moving much of the engine program from Japan to Red Bull Powertrains facilities to reduce costs.

      Porsce could buy Alpha Tauri but would prefer coming in with a front running team so the feeling is that if the Red Bull deal doesn’t happen then Porsche won’t be coming in.

      Andretti has also discussed buying a majority share in Alpha Tauri but rumor is that Liberty have told existing teams if they sell they would perfer it be to a manufacturer as they see manufacturer involvement as a way to increase buzz, sponsors and therefore maximize profits.

      1. Thanks for the insightful comment as usual !

        The Race also explained in their latest podcast that the deal is not straightforward as some might think. That would be a very good slap in the face of F1 who has been flirting with the VW group for quite a while since the entire 2026 rule package has been tailor made to get Porsche commit to the sport !

    4. Liberty doesn’t want a repeat of the Honda, BMW, and Toyota problems. It’s bad for business, both for Liberty who sees manufacturers as enhancing the value of F1 (i.e. they will charge hosts more), and the manufacturers who see F1 as a marketing platform.

      After the failure of the 2014 regulations (no new entries, no marketing opportunities for everyone except Mercedes) they made the 2026 regulations so prescriptive that it’s almost illegal to build a bad engine.

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