So it turns out the Red Bull and Porsche thing won’t happen. Wow, didn’t see that one coming. Formula One is a funny old game. There’s the high-octane track action, which is the obvious centrepiece, but the rumour mill that whirrs away endlessly in the background can be just as interesting, if not more so. Whispers start, and very often they’re denied. At which point you can pretty much guarantee they’re true. They will happen. Like Daniel Ricciardo's exit from McLaren. We knew that was on the cards when both parties had said it wasn’t back in the summer.
The Porsche story wasn’t quite so clear cut. A tie-up between Porsche and Red Bull has been mooted for a while, and seemed to be as good as done. But a Porsche return to F1 has been mentioned a few times over the years. Since it was last involved with its ill-fated V12 programme back in 1991, there have been many comebacks discussed. It hasn’t happened, though. Still hasn't now this deal's gone south. Yet this time the rumours had more substance because the stars seemed truly aligned.
Firstly, there is a new F1 engine formula coming in 2026, which would put the existing and new engine manufacturers on a more equal footing. This will also be a cheaper engine formula, too, but still marketable because of the reduction in CO2 outputs. That's down to a greater slice of the powertrain’s power coming from electricity, along with the use of synthetic fuels on the ICE side – something Porsche is involved with currently. There’s also the huge upsurge in interest in Formula One off the back of the Netflix series Drive to Survive, and this is especially true in the US, which is Porsche’s key market. Could it afford not to be in F1 now? And there was an ideal partner for Porsche to work with: Red Bull Racing. Red Bull is back at the top of its game. It’s finally wrestled the baton of F1 domination from Mercedes, but found itself in the odd position of having no engine partner in 2022.
This is where the Porsche story becomes entwined with the ebb and flow of Honda’s participation in F1. Honda, as it so often does, decided in 2020 to pull the plug on its F1 programme – and its Red Bull partnership – at the most inopportune time. Since 2015 it had endured a very public drubbing when it returned as a works engine supplier to McLaren. Things didn’t go well. Its engines weren’t just down on power but also dreadfully unreliable. This led to it splitting with McLaren and joining forces with Red Bull’s sister team, Torro Rosso, in 2018.
By that stage, Honda’s engine had become far more competitive. In 2019 it also began supplying the main Red Bull Racing team, too, and at that year’s Austrian Grand Prix, Honda took its first win in the hybrid era. It wasn’t a fortuitous one-off, either. It was the start of a purple patch (and arguably proof that McLaren was stupid to dump Honda, which was always likely to come good), but just as the winning potential was becoming obvious to see, and the PR disaster of the McLaren days was blossoming into a good-news story, Honda announced in October 2020 that it was pulling out of the sport.
The following year, we had one of the best seasons in F1’s history. Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton raised the bar of competition to new heights, and it was Verstappen and Red Bull Honda that took the honours in the driver’s championship. Finally, Mercedes had been knocked off its perch, but Honda wouldn’t officially be around to capitalise on its success in 2022.
It did a similar thing as a team owner at the end of 2008. After eight years of underwhelming performances – first as an engine supplier to the BAR team, and then as a full-blown constructor when it took over the Brackley operation in 2006 – it was on the cusp of greatness. By 2007, Ross Brawn was installed as team principle and his team had designed a world-beating car for the start of the 2009 season. Yet Honda shocked the sport by announcing, quite out the blue at the end of 2008, it was pulling out.
Again, Honda should’ve been getting spoils for its hard work but let it slip away. Brawn cobbled together the funds to buy the team from Honda just before the start of the 2009 season, because he knew how good the car was going to be. And so it proved to be. The Brawn team went on to win both the driver’s and constructor’s championship in 2009 – success that Honda could’ve been enjoying. And the winning foundation that Honda had laid down would go on to become one of the most successful teams in the history of the sport. Brawn sold the company to Daimler in 2010, and the Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula One team began a period of domination like no other, winning eight consecutive constructor's titles and seven driver’s titles.
Anyway, back to the Porsche project. Honda’s withdrawal led to the formation of Red Bull Powertrains, which took over the development of the Honda RA621H 1.6-litre turbo hybrid power unit. The Honda Racing Corporation would still continue the manufacturing, assembly and support for the engines, but Red Bull would be paying most of the costs. So far, it’s working well. Red Bull Racing is odds-on favourite to win the 2022 driver’s and constructor’s championships. Meanwhile, Red Bull Powertrain’s 2026 engine has also been fired up and run on the dyno.
This was a great opportunity for Porsche. It was poised to come in and join forces with a winning team in 2026 and take over the development of the existing Red Bull engine, rather than having to start from scratch like its sister brand Audi is planning. It sounded like the ideal springboard for nailed-on success. There was, however, some confusion surrounding the IP of Honda’s F1 engine. It was thought Red Bull Powetrains had purchased the IP, but it turned out the IP was merely leased from Honda. Whether that’s been a sticking point is not clear.
What is clear is the question of independence of the Red Bull F1 operation. Red Bull’s team principle, Christian Horner, has been very vocal that any manufacturer partner would have to fit with Red Bull. He has said that "Red Bull has always been an independent team, it has been one of our strengths and it has been the backbone of what we have achieved and our ability to move quickly. It is part of the DNA of who we are. We are not a corporately operated organisation and that is one of our strengths in how we operate as a race team and that is an absolute pre-requisite for the future.”
Is that the reason talks with Porsche have broken down? Porsche wanting to affect too much control over the team? It has been reported elsewhere that the manufacturer wanted a 50 per cent share of the business - so probably. Another twist in the tale came about at this year’s Austrian Grand Prix. At the place where Red Bull and Honda had their first joint success in 2019, this year’s Austrian Grand Prix – held at the Red Bull Ring, of course – was attended by some very senior members of Honda’s board. Honda’s CEO, Toshihiro Mibe, was there. So was its chairman, Seiji Kuraishi, as well as HRC president, Koji Watanabe, and its director, Yasuaki Asaki. What could such high-profile attendees signal, other than the potential of Honda re-joining forces with Red Bull? After all, it’s proved to be a successful combination already, with the two companies still enjoying a warm relationship and plenty of success. And then, just months later, to add fuel to that, Porsche officially announces it’s not joining Red Bull after all. Coincidence? Hmm…
So what are Porsche’s options now? Well, it seems that it still wants to be a part of F1 in 2026. The statement announcing it’s no longer pursuing the deal with Red Bull included the line, ‘With the finalised rule changes, the racing series nevertheless remains an attractive environment for Porsche, which will continue to be monitored.’ Its options include a tie-up or buy-up of Aston Martin, with Canadian billionaire Lawrence Stroll known to be willing to sell for the right price. Another McLaren Porsche joint venture, perhaps, as we saw in the '80s? Then there’s also Michael Andretti’s potential new team. But most likely at this stage is Williams. Its value has risen substantially since investment group Dorilton Capital took over in 2020. That means it's no longer a bargain but it’s awash with ex-VW motorsport figureheads, including team principal Jost Capito, technical director François-Xavier Demaison and sporting director Sven Smeets.
Porsche has until the 15th October 2022 to put its name down on the FIA’s list of engine manufacturers if it wants to be on the grid in 2026. So one way or another, we’ll have an answer by then. Will there be yet another twist in the tale? More than likely.
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