Yes, it was quite a good day for Red Bull in Suzuka.

Christian Horner hoped Daniel Ricciardo would recover to sixth. He finished fourth. Max Verstappen, after colliding with both Ferrari’s, proceeded to frighten second-placed Valtteri Bottas in the closing laps, eventually settling for a well-earned third.

“All round, it has been a positive day getting two cars to the finish and taking home a good haul of points,” Team Principal Horner said.

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.

Red Bull’s 2017 car, the RB13, finished the season in a comfortable third place (Image courtesy of Red Bull Content Pool). 

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. 

Red Bull’s 2014 RB10 was one of their more successful cars in the turbo-hybrid era, taking home P2 in the Constructors Championship behind Mercedes (Image courtesy of Red Bull Content Pool). 

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.

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.

Pierre Gasly’s Toro Rosso leads Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull during the Japanese Grand Prix (Image courtesy of Red Bull Content Pool). 

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.

The engine is now “very successfully complete”, according to Honda’s General Manager Masashi Yamamoto.

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.

Masashi Yamamoto (left) and Christian Horner during the Friday press conference in Suzuka (Image courtesy of Red Bull Content Pool). 

“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.

Honda were raving about their new power unit in Suzuka. 

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 the 2013 season.

“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.

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen on-track during the Japanese Grand Prix (Image courtesy of Red Bull Content Pool). 

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.

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