Honda’s shock announcement that it will leave F1 at the of 2021 has stung like few departures before it.
For Formula One the hum of existential dread has grown a little louder.
Honda announced its withdrawal not to cut costs or for a lack of competitiveness; it intends to redirect its resources to what it calls a “once-in-one-hundred-years period of great transformation” of the automotive industry in pursuit of greater environmental outcomes.
Honda’s aim is to be carbon neutral by 2050, and it wants two-thirds of its car sales to be electric in less than a decade.
Formula One is not relevant to its plans.
The current F1 powertrain is among the advanced in the world. Fundamentally a 1.6-litre V6 turbocharged motor, its cutting-edge energy recovery systems deliver thermal efficiency of more than 50% - a road-going car might be good for half that - while producing more than 1000 horsepower.
But the formula was devised in 2011, when hybrids were in vogue. Less than a decade later the automotive world is moving rapidly towards a fully electric future.
Mercedes, Renault and least of all Ferrari are unlikely to follow suit and leave, having signed via their respective teams to compete until 2025, but with new engine rules due in 2026, the stakes have certainly been raised.
Picking a path will be no easy task.
F1 itself aims to be carbon neutral by 2030, but alignment with automotive technology would require a fully electric solution - impossible so long as batteries remain unable to deliver F1 speeds over a grand prix distance.
Synthetic fuel is part of F1’s sustainability push with the current power unit, which could have its life prolonged with a development freeze. However, the engine’s muted sound and unwieldy weight has inspired neither fan nor driver, and it remains painfully expensive technology.
Could F1 return to a naturally aspirated V10 in the name of the spectacle and offset the emissions? Perhaps, but though it’s an appealing solution for some, it might prove a turnoff for the likes of Mercedes and Renault or other brands F1 relies on to build prestige.
This difficult balance, between technology and spectacle, between cost and exclusivity, is the battle for F1’s soul. What the sport agrees on - if indeed there’s agreement rather than a tearing up of accepted ideas - will be crucial to its long-term viability.
It’s shaping as F1’s most significant decision in a generation.
But these existential questions may seem trifling to Red Bull Racing today, which finds itself without a works engine on the even of the 2022 regulation changes.
It must bite particularly hard given the Red Bull company saved Honda from the ignominy of being punted from the sport in a messy breakup with McLaren after three years of woeful underperformance. A deal with Toro Rosso, now AlphaTauri, in 2018 and then Red Bull Racing in 2019 allowed the Japanese company to restore its reputation, powering the two to 20 podiums and five victories to date.
With Mercedes and Ferrari supplying four and three teams respectively, a deeply unhappy reunion with Renault - whose customer engines it so despised that it rebranded them ‘TAG Heuer’ in 2016–18 to avoid saying the name of the French company - stands as the most likely outcome.
Worse, the lack of a works engine is believed to be a potential break clause for star driver Max Verstappen, who may now be free to play his hand in the driver market.
Honda might leave a winner, but few others could count themselves so lucky.