On the face of it, a switch from the third most competitive engine of the turbo-hybrid era to the least competitive engine doesn't sound great. But Red Bull's decision to use Honda power from 2019 is all about the future and not the past. A fragile relationship with Renault gave little hope of taking the fight to Mercedes and Ferrari over the next two years while the Honda deal puts more of Red Bull's destiny in its own hands.
What went wrong between Red Bull and Renault?
After winning four consecutive drivers' and constructors' championships together between 2010 and 2013, the Red Bull/Renault partnership became strained when Renault failed to deliver under new turbo-hybrid regulations in 2014. There's nothing quite like a lack of performance to sour an F1 relationship, and with the new engines having an even greater bearing on overall performance than in the V8 era, Red Bull soon became fed up.
In 2015 an approach to Mercedes was made and Red Bull even went as far as terminating its contract with Renault in the belief that a deal was in the offing. Mercedes insists the negotiations didn't go that far, but reports at the time suggest Toto Wolff only managed to talk the Mercedes board out of the idea by raising concerns that technology may find its way to rival German car manufacturer VW/Audi if it decided to come into the sport and pair itself with an already Mercedes-supplied Red Bull.
Mercedes team chairman Niki Lauda was more open to the idea and held a private meeting with Red Bull boss Dietrich Mateschitz to discuss how the deal would work for Mercedes. The details of that meeting are known only by the two men in attendance, but at the time Red Bull and Mercedes gave quite different accounts of what -- if anything -- was agreed on, with Red Bull insisting a handshake had all but sealed a deal.
Speaking to ESPN more recently about the reasons a Red Bull/Mercedes deal didn't happen, Wolff pointed to the way in which Renault has been treated by Red Bull over the years.
"It is exactly because they are undermining their current partner that they are not having a Mercedes engine!" he said in an interview at the end of 2017. "In Formula One, like everywhere else in life -- be it your private life or business life -- it's about compromise and acknowledging your partner's strengths and weaknesses and helping each other out.
"That is very much the culture we have at Mercedes and that has made us successful in the last few years. Respect is a super important part of our values and this is why we have chosen the partners we have."
Unsurprisingly, Renault also cited an attitude problem as the main issue for the partnership's lack of success after 2014. Renault Sport managing director Cyril Abiteboul believes the biggest mistake was a reluctance to embrace a works deal ahead of 2014 and instead stick to a strict customer/supplier relationship. He also thinks Renault's engineers suffered by not having a direct link to the race track through Red Bull.
"What we did not manage to do is understand and appreciate the complexity of the 2014 regulations and appreciate together that the model of a customer on one side and a supplier on the other side was completely blown away by the new regulations," he told ESPN in an interview earlier this year. "That's why Mercedes and also Ferrari were the two teams to take advantage of that -- they are great teams, have great facilities, well-resourced good people but it's also because they are fully integrated.
"That level of integration, we didn't see that coming -- neither Red Bull nor Renault. That was our common mistake, that we didn't manage to support and identify and to react and correct. So we have been a little bit complacent with the model in which we wanted to collectively operate. That was not appropriate, that was not suitable or adapted to those new regulations.
"I think by keeping us as a supplier and by us keeping them as a customer at arm's length, it has also undermined the capacity for Viry -- our engine base -- to be in close contact with the racing. All the discussion that we have about oil combustion and qualifying modes are things that we have never thought of and that is a direct consequence of the way we are working with Red Bull, and a direct consequence also of the fact that we had lost contact by not being a works team, or not being associated with a team that was considering us a complete partner.
"We've lost ground by not being in the racing environment. That's one of the things that we are rebuilding now that we have a works team."
Why Red Bull-Honda should be different
With Honda supplying the sister teams of Red Bull and Toro Rosso from 2019 onward, all three parties should, in theory, make progress by working towards a shared goal. Add to that a free supply of engines after 12 years of paying Renault for the privilege and, regardless of performance, Red Bull's decision starts to make a lot of sense.
Of course, Honda became a supply option for Red Bull only because a similar relationship with McLaren broke down. But that was mainly due to Honda struggling to find its feet following a six-year absence from F1, and the early signs from 2018 are that it has learned plenty of lessons from the three seasons it endured with McLaren. What's more, after the McLaren deal crumbled due to a series of missed deadlines and broken promises, the latest Honda upgrade appears to have been delivered on time and to expectations.
Meanwhile, Red Bull's decision makers have had the luxury of monitoring the progress of both manufacturers this year, with Tag Heuer-branded Renault engines in the senior team and Honda engines in the Toro Rosso. The plan was to wait until the second specfication of both engines was delivered at the Canadian Grand Prix earlier this month and make an informed decision for 2019 based on the results. Originally an announcement was scheduled for Red Bull's home race in Austria, but the speed in which it sided with Honda suggests the performance improvement seen in Canada showed serious promise.
"We decided that based on the information we had after Montreal that our decision, driven by engineering, was pretty clear cut in the end," Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said. "We felt that rather than things getting delayed or taking further time -- Renault were also keen to have a decision as soon as possible to get their own plans in place -- we decided that the time was right to make that decision and commitment and make that announcement today."
Honda's reliability is still not as good as it should be, but the same can be said of Renault. MGU-K issues on both Red Bulls have pretty much guaranteed grid penalties later in the year, but Honda has at least shown a clear improvement on the spate of reliability issues in recent years (although it's fair to say it couldn't have gotten much worse).
Naturally, there is a risk that Renault will retain or extend its advantage over Honda in the coming years, leaving Red Bull at a disadvantage to Renault and McLaren as both teams aim to develop out of the midfield. However, as a customer team of Renault, Red Bull was always going to have to take what it was given, and increasingly it has been given an engine tailored to the needs of the works Renault team and its fuel and oil supplier BP/Castrol. By choosing Honda it has more control over the overall development of the engine and can reunite the Japanese manufacturer with its own fuel and oil supplier Mobil 1.
Mercedes and Ferrari have both shown that a close collaboration between chassis, engine and fuel supplier pays dividends in performance under the current regulations, and with its Honda deal Red Bull will now have a set-up to rival F1's two powerhouses. Given the options on the table before the next big regulation change in 2021, it was the obvious choice.