Withdrawn from F1 since the end of the 2021 season, Honda is considering officially returning to the circuit in 2026, as an engine manufacturer. The news broke earlier this week as Honda joined Red Bull Powertrains, Audi and Mercedes in the 2026 engine formula registration. Many have postulated that the Japanese manufacturer would rejoin Red Bull who are currently using an unbadged Honda engine, but there are strong rumours that suggest Honda could well return to McLaren instead.
The president of Honda Racing launched his bid with the statement that they have “registered Honda as an engine manufacturer from 2026 with the F1 sporting authorities. The 2026 regulations are moving towards carbon neutrality, which we are also promoting as a manufacturer. Our objectives therefore match”.
The Japanese carmaker withdrew from Formula 1 at the end of the 2021 season. It was clear that its focus on expanding its electric road car business would no longer justify a Formula One programme.
Honda leaves, but not really…
Nevertheless, Honda stayed on in the background, leasing the IP of its engines to Red Bull from 2022, and subsequently defending the drivers’ world championship with Max Verstappen, as well as winning the constructors’ championship.
“We registered as an engine manufacturer in order to carry out advanced research“, continued Yasuharu Watanabe, during a presentation ceremony.
“As HRC, we have enrolled as a power unit manufacturer after 2026,” Watanabe says during Honda’s presentation of the Honda Motor Sports Activity Plan 2023.
“The Formula One regulations from 2026 are moving towards CO2 neutrality.”
“In addition, electrification is also being promoted, and the CO2 neutrality and electrification that Honda Motor Co, Ltd. is promoting are identical. The goals are the same. As a racing company, we registered as a manufacturer to promote racing research.”
“Also, November 15 was the deadline [for registration]. We registered as a manufacturer to continue [this research],” Honda’s statements said.
Honda’s continued success this year has led to an increased presence for the company, with Honda logos once again appearing on Red Bull’s cars from the Japanese Grand Prix onwards. The current agreement with Red Bull runs until the end of the 2025 season, after which the Milton Keynes-based team plans to use its own power unit.
But talks over a Honda return to Formula One moved forward when an original plan for Red Bull to work with Porsche from 2026 collapsed after the parties failed to reach an agreement.
It now remains to be seen what concrete change this could produce in 2026. Continue with Red Bull but see the name of the coupled team in black and white or work with another team? For the moment, the first option seems the most likely at face value, while Honda should continue its partnership with the Austrian team at least until 2025. But the fact is that Red Bull are very keen to pursue it’s own engine in 2026 having made huge investments at Milton Keynes.
Further, it appears that Red Bull are in advanced talks with the Ford motor company about a deal that would see the Ford name return to F1, albeit as a rebadged Red Bull Powerunit. For Red Bull Powertrains, the financial investment in such a venture would be useful and outside the Red Bull Racing budget cap.
With Red Bull clearly aiming to get a return on their Powertrains investment, Honda is looking elsewhere. But with the investment required for creating their own team far beyond what they would receive back in the short to medium term, another partnership with an existing team is far more plausible.
Enter McLaren. The team from Woking has had a recent history with Honda, and it proved to be a disaster but when F1 is concerned, memories are short. Further, there aren’t really many other options in terms of partnerships that aren’t Williams, a consistent backmarker.
McLaren are a far more robust setup than the previous incarnation that Honda dealt with five years ago. No more in-house fighting and a Ron Dennis power struggle leaving behind a team in disarray.
If Honda do return to Woking, especially a Honda that has experience and knowledge on how to achieve the greatest Formula 1 success with Red Bull, we could well see a McLaren Honda closer to the great partnership of the late eighties and early nineties.