Yes, it was quite a good day for Red Bull in Suzuka.
Christian Horner hoped Daniel Ricciardo would recover to sixth.
But, the meaning behind this result goes so much deeper. Two storylines have played out in 2018 and in Suzuka, they found themselves crossing over; so ironic given Japan hosts Formula 1’s only criss-cross, figure-of-eight circuit.
Storyline No. 1: Red Bull’s Nothingness Land
2018 hasn’t quite been the year for Red Bull. Despite pre-season rumours that suggested they’d be one of the front-running teams, this season has panned out with the same old pattern of years gone by in the turbo-hybrid era.
They’re third, ways behind Mercedes and Ferrari but even further ahead of fourth-placed Renault.
Red Bull advisor Helmut Marko said to Kronen Zeitung newspaper ahead of the recent Russian Grand Prix that Red Bull’s focus is now “clearly” on the 2019 season, and that serves as no surprise.
Red Bull have found themselves just-a-touch behind Mercedes and Ferrari for the past three seasons. Although they’ve won five Grands Prix over that time, they’ve never looked like serious championship contenders.
It’s a worryingly consistent trend they’ve faced since 2014’s regulation upheaval.
So, to put it comfortably; Red Bull have always been the ‘nearly’ team. Not quite a front-runner but always gallops ahead of the midfield.
Storyline No. 2: The Performance of Honda
Honda returned to Formula 1 in 2015. Since then, there have surely been times they wished they hadn’t.
By late-2017, with no podiums to show after three seasons of effort, McLaren ditched Honda in a desperate attempt to regain competitiveness, leaving the Japanese manufacturer with no supply for 2018.
- When Marchionne passed, Ferrari faced a chaotic struggle for leadership
- Ex-FIA Laurent Mekies to head Ferrari technical department
- Arrivabene could move to Sauber, source speculates
In the end, Red Bull emerged as the unlikely contender and the energy drinks consortium picked up pieces of Honda’s shattered McLaren dream, giving the contract to junior team Toro Rosso.
Fast-forwarding to now, Toro Rosso is in the midst of a relatively competitive season with engines that appear to actually work.
This weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix marked the introduction of Honda’s third-spec power unit, which produced a double-Q3 appearance for them, whilst both McLaren’s, now powered by Renault, were eliminated in Q1.
How These Stories Intersected in Suzuka
In 2019, Honda’s engine supply will expand to include Red Bull, as the top team ditches its rocky relationship with Renault.
When Honda introduced its new power unit in Suzuka, Red Bull was watching. Christian Horner said he was following “with keen interest” during Friday practice.
The upgrade appeared successful; Yamamoto said during the Friday press conference, “recently, everything has been much better” with the power unit that’s commonly regarded as the sport’s worst.
“We have upgraded it, and it’s finally complete, and very successfully complete,” Yamamoto beamed proudly. During the same conference, Toro Rosso’s Franz Tost set his team the goal of a double-Q3 appearance, which they later fulfilled.
Christian Horner was there too, and he made one interesting remark when talking about the performance of power units.
“You need all elements to be performing to win in this sport,” he proclaimed.
It freakishly eludes to Red Bull’s storyline over the last few years; arguably they’ve had the chassis – as proved by consistently performing in Monaco – but perhaps they’ve never quite had the engine, which Horner said was a “key element.” A rocky Singapore Grand Prix and Daniel Ricciardo’s issue in Suzuka’s qualifying have raised the tension with Renault.
The very next comment Horner made was: “We’re looking very much forward to 2019 and starting this relationship with Honda.”
The Lasting Ramifications
Red Bull presented themselves as a step behind Mercedes in Suzuka, as expected. But, it was Honda’s third-spec engine upgrade that appeared to be the step they so sorely desire. Red Bull haven’t realistically challenged for a championship since they swept
“We’re hugely impressed by the effort, commitment, desire, determination to succeed that there is in Honda,” Horner said.
The Japanese Grand Prix proved to the world that Honda knows how to build a competitive engine. Toro Rosso used it to out-qualify Renault, Force India and Sauber. It also proved to the world that Red Bull can produce a car capable of being relatively competitive.
All weekend Red Bull was in that ‘nearly’ category, still behind Mercedes and Ferrari, but leaps ahead of the midfield. In fairness, Verstappen did outqualify Raikkonen in Q3. He also beat both battered Ferrari’s in the race whilst pressurizing Bottas.
Unfortunately, as Horner said, Red Bull lacks that “key element” right now.
But, in Suzuka Honda proudly proclaimed – with the introduction of the spec-three – to the eagerly watching Red Bull: ‘we have your key element’.
Its ramifications could mean by 2019, Red Bull may not be the ‘nearly’ team, finally, they can return to the ‘championship-winning’ team.