The fledgling Austrian-Japanese partnership has flourished beyond expectation in 2019. What was initially written off as a transitionary year for the two companies to allow the chassis and engine teams to bond has already delivered two victories and a pole position, and at only three races has Red Bull Racing not had a car finish in the top four.
There was more on offer too, with victory in Hungary snatched in the final laps by clever Mercedes strategy, while the potential for a strong performance at Singapore was lost to wayward set-up that handed Ferrari the initiative.
These are indeed happy days at Honda, which little more than 24 months ago was at risk of falling out of the sport as a failure after a horror three-year stint partnered with McLaren.
Red Bull, in the guise of development team Toro Rosso, offered the Japanese marque a lifeline for 2018, and though Honda’s steps forward in power delivery in the less-pressured environs of Faenza were big enough to convince senior team Red Bull Racing to take on its engine this season, few would have been bold enough to suggest it would be fast enough or reliable enough to win races so quickly.
This is thanks largely to Honda pursuing an aggressive development programme to close the gap in the power stakes. Whereas each driver is allowed only three power units for the entire season, Honda has brought five, with each improving power or bettering reliability, albeit at the cost of myriad grid penalties.
But Red Bull Racing has been able to take these penalties tactically at races it didn’t expect to contend for victories. The team took on the latest upgrade at the preceding Russian Grand Prix, sacrificing starting position to have a fresh engine ready for this weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix, where the motor will also be boosted by a new fuel in a bid to deliver Honda its first home victory since 1991.
“It is definitely the goal to win in Japan,” Red Bull motorsport advisor Helmut Marko told motorsport.com. “Out first goal was to win races, and a win at Suzuka would of course be the top.
“It is a circuit that suits Max [Verstappen] well and it is the home race of Honda, so what could be better than that?”
But Verstappen is wary of predicting home glory for Honda, noting that Ferrari remains ahead in the power stakes.
“Ferrari will be very strong as they have so much power and will be fast on the straights, but our car will be quick in the corners, so hopefully we can gain some time there,” said the Dutchman. “It won’t be easy at Suzuka, but we will of course deliver the best performance possible for the Japanese fans.”
But question marks remain about Red Bull Racing’s ultimate potential. Ordinarily balance and poise are strengths of the Milton Keyes-based team, and such aerodynamic traits are rewarded handsomely around the famed Suzuka Circuit’s 18 corners, but the team struggled to nail its set-up at the previous two races in Singapore and Russia. Singapore in particular was a missed opportunity, having been chalked up as an expected victory.
So while local attention will be on Honda at this weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix, the pressure will be on Red Bull Racing to execute cleanly in pursuit of the first Honda-powered home victory in a generation.