Lost amid the asininity in declaring the winner of Formula 1’s Austrian Grand Prix this past Sunday was the fact that the race produced a rare change in the pecking order for powerplants. With the win, Max Verstappen gave Honda its first moment in the spotlight, atop the podium, since the Bronze Age. Or something like that.
The last person to give Honda a win was Jenson Button, who did so in 2006. It’s important to recognize that he’s retired at this point. Heck, even Honda retired from the sport for a while.
Verstappen’s showing in the Honda was only its second win in 27 years, which is six more years than Verstappen has candles on his birthday cake.
To call the victory momentous for Honda is an understatement. This result is the kind that validates Honda’s continued involvement in the sport, one that makes it look as though its investment has been worth it. With such disappointing and, truthfully, terrible stats over the first four years of its return, there was no reason to think that Honda even belonged in Formula 1.
Of course, to use the win as a way to sugarcoat all of its past lackluster performances would be a bit too much and an endeavor not worth undertaking. Just because Honda won a race does not mean that suddenly it can take on Ferrari and Mercedes at all the remaining tracks. What it does mean is that the trend for the season, which has been looking up, has been right. There’s a reason to feel that Honda may be on their way to reaching, finally, its past glory. Will such a thing happen this year? No. Next year? Maybe.
And that’s the great thing.
The sport needs a challenge to the front-runners. When Renault and Red Bull finalized their divorce as the end of 2018, there was a belief that Renault, now unburdened with the onerous requirements that Red Bull had placed on it, would be able to develop the engine in a way that better suited its teams. So far, that has not been the case for the works team.
In fact, in a cruel twist, all advancements made to the Renault powerplant have instead evinced themselves with McLaren, the team that also just got over a divorce, ironically, with Honda. So McLaren is posting much-improved results this year, enjoying a comfortable relationship with Renault, and has actually positioned itself as a rising team but one that is still far from the top of the grid. Sixth-place finishes may accumulate points but do not constitute a show of strength.
For now, it’s the Honda-powered Red Bull that provides the best challenge. Yet even Sunday’s win is one that should be taken with a certain amount of perspective.
To start, Mercedes was likely to struggle in the conditions in Austria. Two things were going against the frontrunners. To start, the Mercedes W10 is not built to perform well in hot temperatures.
The way the car is configured, the squeeze on the mechanical layout, with its radiators in the rear, push for the car to run a little hotter than most. They squeeze the mechanicals in an arrow formation that grows wider at the rear, and the team is more than aware of this engineering conundrum.
They were so cognizant of the matter that they did all they could aside from removing the bodywork to keep things cool. The team had already opened everything they could and compromised the performance in an effort to keep the engine cool, and they could go no further. To make matters worse, the engines were run in one of the safest modes it has, knowing the performance would also be hindered but hoping that the handling would help to make up for the shortcomings.
Then there’s one other aspect. While not an astronomical level, the Red Bull Ring sits high enough in the Alps, almost a half mile above sea level, that the air with less density makes it more difficult to cool the car. The team had done everything mechanically possible, but the challenge of location and weather allowed for a very beatable pair of Silver Arrows.
As for Ferrari, the biggest thing that can be said is that it mismanaged the race. They did not fail a silly or embarrassing way like they have over the past two years but instead by not taking the threat from Verstappen seriously. Ferrari seemed to believe they had coached Charles Leclerc to his first win but did not understand that perhaps had called him into the pits too early, thinking Mercedes was still the rival.
When Verstappen blew by Sebastian Vettel as though Vettel were driving in mud, Ferrari must have known they were in trouble. Passing the other two Mercedes would be no challenge, and thus, Verstappen and Leclerc would be able to challenge each other for the win.
This did not work out for Ferrari more than it outright failed, but they also lost to a car and driver that caught a perfect wave. The Red Bull chassis, which has been known to be the most nimble in the paddock, excelled on the smaller Red Bull Ring (just over a mile in length), and the power deficit it faced against the top two was mitigated by the lack of long straights (just one) and an undulating track.
The win does not signal that Red Bull or Honda are back. It showcases that Verstappen is one badass driver when given the chance to challenge the top teams. It illustrates that Red Bull still has an awesome car that excels on a turn-heavy track. It announces that Honda has definitely made improvements and that it is getting better, much better.
And for now, that’s a great situation for the sport.