Honda returned to the sport in 2015 as an engine manufacturer with McLaren but suffered a disastrous start with underperforming and unreliable engines, which had to be designed to fit McLaren tight packaging.
The partnership proved to be a major embarrassment for the proud Japanese company, with soundbites such as Fernando Alonso’s “GP2 engine” comment doing little to improve relations.
A lack of results across three fruitless years led to McLaren and Honda ultimately deciding to part ways in the autumn of 2017.
AlphaTauri – then Toro Rosso – made a shock switch to Honda instead for the 2018 season, with Red Bull following suit the next year.
Honda gelled much better with the Red Bull family, up to the point Sakura’s power units finally managed to compete with the leading Mercedes engines after the latest developments last winter.
That allowed Verstappen to challenge Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton, and ultimately beat the Briton to the 2021 title.
While Red Bull and Honda had to cede the constructors’ championship to Mercedes, Honda thinks Verstappen’s maiden title is the reward for Honda believing in its own technology despite the early setbacks.
“Max winning the drivers’ title is a great achievement for us, as we have been in the sport since 2015 and have been through a very difficult period of seven years, gradually improving,” Tanabe said.
“Last year we were quite a way behind Mercedes, but I’m very happy that we’ve come this far this year, with both drivers and constructors fighting for the championship.
World Champion Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing
Photo by: Erik Junius
“Unfortunately, we didn’t win the constructors’ title, but I think the reason we’ve come this far is because we believed in our technology, and we were determined to do what we had to do to win.
“We worked relentlessly to develop our technology to win.
“We’ve had the support of our operations group, our travel group and our families who send their families abroad to help us achieve this.
“I was talking to the Sakura guys earlier, and I think there’s a sense of achievement in Max winning the championship at the end of the day.”
The 2021 title decider in Abu Dhabi will also be Honda’s last race as an engine supplier, with Red Bull taking the engine programme in-house at its Milton Keynes campus after Honda decided to pull out.
When asked why Honda finally managed to overcome its early struggles and deliver a winning engine with Red Bull to mark its F1 farewell, Tanabe said the mutual understanding between the two companies was key in developing the power units.
“We worked with McLaren since 2015 and struggled with them.
“Then in 2018 we worked with Toro Rosso and we did it with an open mind, which led to a contract with Red Bull, which is demanding,” Tanabe explained.
“I think we understood each other and the drivers and what we had to do to get the best result, and it all came together. I think it’s a great moment for us.
“I think it’s to work together as a company and as a group, I think it is the process that is important.
“We seriously come to the circuit every time to win every race, with support from Sakura and Milton Keynes.”
Additional reporting by Kazuki Matsumoto