Honda F1 managing director Masashi Yamamoto had inadvertently sparked fresh doubt about whether or not the Japanese manufacturer will continue to participate in Formula 1 beyond 2020.
Honda returned to the sport as an engine provider in 2015, but had a rough time with a brutally disappointing three-year campaign in partnership with McLaren.
The two companies split at the end of 2017, with Honda teaming up with Toro Rosso instead. Deemed a success, it was enough to persuade the senior Red Bull Racing squad to follow suit in 2019.
It’s been an even bigger success story since, more than many fans and pundits had been expecting. Max Verstappen took victory in the Austrian Grand Prix, the first F1 race win for Honda in almost 13 years.
The team won again in Hockenheim, where a further podium for Daniil Kvyat with the junior team confirming that the surge in success wasn’t just down to Red Bull.
And pole for Verstappen in the final race in Hungary before the summer break was the first time a Honda-powered car has started at the front since Jenson Button in Melbourne in 2006. So far so good, then, it would seem.
“What we’ve kept saying is we wanted to exceed last year’s Red Bull result,” Yamamoto told Autosport magazine. “We want to exceed the points Red Bull scored last year.”
Red Bull’s total 2018 haul was 419 points, with 233 of those clinched by the summer break. At the same point this year the team has 244 points putting it on target to meet that objective.
Red Bull won four races last season and ideally Honda would like to beat that too, although it’s not the top concern for Yamamoto.
“We didn’t say we want to win five races [in 2019],” he insisted. “[But] maybe five wins is possible.”
However, the return to winning ways might have come too late for Honda. There have been months of persistent rumours that senior management in Japan is due to decide whether or not to pull the plug on the F1 operation after next season, regardless of the results.
“There is not much we could do more than this,” Yamamoto said, sounding somewhat pessimistic about the prospects.
“It’s true we’re discussing it [Honda’s future in F1] within the company,” he admitted. “But we can’t really say when we can announce it, at the moment.
“I think it’s going to encourage us for continuation,” he offered of the recent run of successes. “I think it’s going to be very good for us.”
Yamamoto’s acknowledgement that Honda’s continued presence in F1 hangs in the balance follows comments that he made in March about the task facing them in 2019.
“This year will be very important for Honda to think about how we can commit after 2020 with Formula 1,” he had said in Melbourne.
“As Honda, when we participate in any category of motorsport, our aim is to win,” he added. “Before we started with Red Bull, I explained the details to the management how we’re going to reach that.
“Then we convinced the upper management,” he added. “So now the company’s feeling, and the people here, has the same direction towards winning.”
It means that the chances of Honda recommitting to a long term future in F1 appear to depend on how Red Bull and Toro Rosso perform in the remaining nine races of 2019.
The win in Austria came just before one crucial board meeting about the situation, and similar success in Honda’s home race in October would be even better in holding out hope of a positive outcome.
“Maybe the only place it can equal is Suzuka,” said Yamamoto. “Honda, and generally in [Japanese] society, are in a very good mood that Honda has won.”
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