Jonathan Noble

Honda: door “unclosed” on the return of Formula 1 in 2026

The Japanese manufacturer abandoned Grand Prix racing at the end of last year as its parent company wanted to redirect resources towards zero-emissions technology in road cars.

It hasn’t completely turned its back on Grand Prix racing, however, with Red Bull taking over running the Honda power units that have helped Max Verstappen in the Drivers’ Championship.

In addition, an arrangement was made for Honda to continue manufacturing, assembling and supporting the engines, with the Honda Racing Corporation (HRC) badges appearing on the Red Bulls and Alpha Tauri cars.

Honda’s title success in 2021, and F1’s major push for a carbon-neutral future ahead of its move to new rules and sustainable fuels from 2026, has sparked speculation that the Japanese manufacturer could be on about to come back.

These discussions were fueled by a visit last weekend to the Austrian Grand Prix by senior Honda executives, including Honda CEO Toshihiro Mibe, Chairman Seiji Kuraishi, as well as HRC Chairman Koji Watanabe and its director, Yasuaki Asaki.

And although the company insists there has been no formal change of heart on an F1 programme, it has admitted that it is closely monitoring developments in the 2026 engine rules.

Speaking at the Red Bull Ring, Watanabe said: “Formula 1 is the premier class of motorsport so we are always watching what is happening in the world of F1.

“Of course, we have just finished and concluded our activities, so nothing [has been] discussed within the Honda company about the 2026 season. So, no plans.

“[But] it is not a closed door. I understand F1 is discussing to decide the regulations for 2026, and the direction is certainly carbon neutral. It’s the same direction as us.

“So we don’t have to [diverge] from carbon neutral to F1 now. It’s probably also a good opportunity to study carbon-neutral F1. So it’s not a closed door.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B

Photo by: Erik Junius

Watanabe said Honda should get its carbon-neutral road car program in place before seriously considering a return to F1.

Asked by about the key factors for Honda to give the green light to a return to F1, Watanabe said: “I think there are several factors that we need to watch out for.

“But once we decided to conclude F1 because of the mass production [road cars] and carbon neutrality, we have to focus on that side first.

“Then, once we realize we can achieve that, we can look at F1.”

Regarding the timeline for a decision on a potential return in 2026, Watanabe suggested an appeal should be made by the end of 2023.

“I don’t know the exact timeframe,” he said. “But if we want to come back to F1 in 2026, we probably have to decide within 1 to 1.5 years.”

Improved Honda brand image

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB18

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB18

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport pictures

While a potential full return for Honda remains uncertain, what looks increasingly likely is an intensification of its involvement with Red Bull.

Discussions are underway about a closer technical partnership, allied to a change in brand focus on Red Bull teams with the “Honda” name to return.

Watanabe added: “At least until 2025, Honda will be a kind of team partner of both teams. And although the details are not yet decided, HRC will also become a kind of technical partner of both teams until in 2025.”

Pushed on a change in branding approach, Watanabe said: “We have to decide for next season, but personally I want to use more Honda…So the combination of Honda and HRC.”

Honda IPs

When Red Bull took over management of Honda power units for this season with its new powertrain division, it was originally thought that the Milton Keynes-based operation had bought the intellectual property rights to the engines.

The element of controlling the intellectual property of Honda power units became particularly relevant during discussions of the 2026 rules, it was agreed that new entrants would be granted concessions to help them catch up with more established manufacturers.

Red Bull were keen to argue, ahead of a likely link to Porsche, that it should be classed as a new entrant; while rivals suggested its Honda DNA meant it should be classed as an existing manufacturer.

Watanabe has now clarified that Red Bull never bought the engine IP – so it reverts to Honda after the current deal ends in 2025.

“They can use the IP, but we haven’t sold the IP to them,” he said. “It’s just a lease; therefore approval of the use of intellectual property.

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