What's driving the Red Bull-Honda partnership?


Unless you're a seasoned F1 veteran, you probably associate the name Honda with failure. It will take a while to change that perception, assuming they stay on the scene long enough to turn around the situation.

How did we end up with a Red Bull-Honda pairing? And what are the implications? 

Why did Red Bull agree to Honda power?

Even before Renault rejoined the grid as a works team, their relationship with Red Bull was beginning to fracture. Despite helping Red Bull deliver four consecutive drivers' and constructors' championships between 2010 - 2013, they fell behind the front-runners as we entered the hybrid era.

Red Bull were vocal in their displeasure with Renault's performance at the time. When Renault took the reigns of the ailing Lotus F1 team, Red Bull started looking around for an alternative supplier, fearing that Renault's entry as a team meant their spiteful history would come back to bite them.

Unfortunately, being such a difficult partner, and given their dominance in recent times, Mercedes and Ferrari closed their doors on any potential partnerships.

When Honda returned to F1 as an engine supplier, McLaren negotiated a deal that ensured exclusive supply of power units. If Honda could deliver on their glory days, McLaren would be finally be able to challenge their main rivals, and without fear of one of them gaining engine parity. Sadly, those glory days never arrived. 

With Mercedes, Ferrari and increasingly Renault unwilling to supply engines to Red Bull, and Honda locked into a exclusive agreement with McLaren, the possibility of them being unable to compete was becoming a real possibility. This lead the FIA to adjust the rules to ensure that all teams could access a supply of engines, immunizing teams from toxic relationships with suppliers (even if they had caused the situation themselves).

Now that the McLaren-Honda partnership is in the rear-vision mirror, Red Bull have been able to assess the true potential of Honda through their affiliation with Toro Rosso. This was a lifeline for Honda, and sticking around has blossomed into their Red Bull relationship which will hopeful bare fruit next year.

Can Honda improve?

Naturally, everyone can improve, the more relevant question is "Will Red Bull be competitive next year?" That's more difficult to predict.

Toro Rosso's performance has certainly improved over last season, however part of this is due to their access to current engines as opposed to last year where they used the previous year's power units. 

Red Bull clearly think they won't be able to win championships with an engine from Mercedes or Ferrari, who will always have a performance advantage due to optimal engines modes and harmony between the chassis and power unit. Their hopes are firmly pinned on Honda, the only engine supplier with no invested interest in helping another team beat them.

Add to that how far behind Red Bull the similarly powered McLaren have been this season, and you could conclude that Honda might have been the scapegoat for at least some of the team's performance issues in recent years.

In the short-term, Red Bull will be hoping that Honda can help them keep pace with the front-runners. If not, they'll at least deliver a stop-gap until the new engine regulations are introduced in 2021, which are rumoured to be attracting even more engine suppliers into the mix.

What will it mean for Ricciardo?

Before a Honda powered Red Bull even turns a wheel, Daniel Ricciardo will need to decide his future with the team.

When Mark Webber was in his twilight years with Red Bull, he stayed with them (despite offers to join Ferrari) because they offered the best chance to win. This isn't the case for Ricciardo.

Although it was thought that a seat might be opening up with Raikkonen leaving Ferrari next year, rumours now suggest that will be filled by rising star Charles Leclerc. This could be because Ricciardo has made up his mind about staying at Red Bull, or because Ferrari want to double-down on Vettel as their outright number 1 driver. Remember, Ricciardo unceremoniously put Vettel in the shade when they were teammates, after all.

Which leaves at least one or possibly two seats vacant at Mercedes. This would be Ricciardo's best chance at winning a championship in the short term. He could replace Valtteri Bottas, who has served as an admirable wingman for Hamilton, but doesn't seem up to the job of winning championships. Alternatively, if Lewis Hamilton decides he'd rather focus on his clothes brand/music career/party life then Ricciardo could even lead the team, regardless of who sits in the sister car. 

Although Nico Rosberg showed that beating Hamilton is possible in 2016, Hamilton has come back from it even stronger and with the real threat from Vettel and Ferrari is keeping him honest. 

As exciting as the prospect of Ricciardo moving teams and being a true championship contender is, the most likely outcome will be that he stays at Red Bull for another season to see how things evolve. 

Confirming this are his comments to the press this week:

“It is easy to think the grass is greener,” he said when speaking to the media in France on Thursday. “Maybe it is. I also have it pretty good where I am.

“People do like a change. That’s always appealing. But just to make a change for the sake of making a change, that won’t be enough for me. I need to find some substance behind it if I’m going to jump ship.”

So a change of overalls may not be in Ricciardo's future after all.