Why Honda supplying F1 engines to Sauber in 2018 makes A LOT of sense

Last weekend, the Sauber F1 team dropped a bombshell on the Formula One community. It wasn’t leaving F1, it wasn’t signing a new driver, and it didn’t have a new sponsor either. Instead, it had agreed to use Honda F1 engines from 2018 onwards. And if you’re an Formula One fan, you’ll know just how bad an idea that sounds.

Why Honda supplying F1 engines to Sauber in 2018 makes A LOT of sense

Some background

If you’ve been following F1 for the past few years, you’ll know that the McLaren F1 team isn’t doing particularly well. In fact, the team from Woking – which is still one of the most successful F1 teams of all time – hasn’t won a race since the Brazilian Grand Prix of 2012, which was five years ago.

Now this could be attributed to the chassis just not being good enough, the departure of star drivers such as Lewis Hamilton, and the shift in personnel to other teams such as Red Bull and Mercedes. But one factor of this form dip has been more obvious than the others – the Honda engine.

McLaren-Honda: The difficult sequel

In 2015, Honda joined the new hybrid-powered F1 championship a year on from other manufacturers, and everyone was under the impression that it would be the class of the field. After all, Honda has been in F1 before, and in the 1980s teamed up with McLaren to develop the MP4/4, the most dominant car in modern F1. Winning 15 out of 16 races, it was in a class of its own – although that’s partly because it was driven by both Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna.

Skip back to 2015, however, and that nostalgia was shattered. The Honda was, well…  rubbish. Problems in testing meant that the new McLaren-Honda only did a fraction of the running of, say, Mercedes, and unbelievably those problems continued into the races too. Worse still, after promises of improvement, 2016 was just as bad, with Alonso and Button scoring only 76 points between them over a year. To put that in perspective, Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg won the championship with 385 points.


Fast forward to 2017 and Honda seems to be facing similar problems. F1 engines in 2017 get their power from a turbocharged petrol engine and electric motor, and they balance those two throughout the lap. Other cars, such as the Mercedes and Ferrari, are able to use their battery-powered, electrical ERS boost throughout the lap, but the Honda engine has been running out early. That means its drivers end up significantly down on power for a good amont of the lap, and if there’s heavy acceleration invovled, the effect is even worse. It’s one of the reasons why Fernando Alonso has been a sitting duck on straights this year, almost as though he’s in the slow lane of a motorway.

Sauber X Honda

The Honda isn’t exactly the engine to have right now – so what on earth is Sauber doing? Although we don’t know for sure, it’s possible that Sauber is going to get next year’s Honda engines for a cheaper price than you’d think. Sauber has had issues with its finances in the past, and it’s actually very much in Honda’s interests to supply more than one team. Why? Because of data.

Mercedes powers its own team, as well as the Force India and Williams teams, while Ferrari now powers its own team as well as the Haas F1 team – and that has a huge benefit when it comes to engine development. The more power units on track, the more engine makers can learn in any given length of time. It effectively boosts the amount of data teams can gather, and increases the chances of both finding and fixing problems. In the small margins of F1, that can be vital.


Honda, on the other hand, just powers the McLaren F1 team right now, and that means it’s theoretically collecting at least two-thirds less data than Mercedes every time the cars are on track. Earlier this year, Honda’s motorsport boss Yusuke Hasegawa said, “I think that from a technical point of view it is good to have a second team, to have more chances to run the engines.”

When you combine that huge lack of data with the slow start that Honda has already suffered with this technology, you can see why it now wants to partner up with Sauber – and why it’s probably offering them a very good deal. Either way, it’s going to be an uphill battle for both partners next year. The weekend the deal was announced, Alonso’s car broke before it could even get to start the Russian Grand Prix. 

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