Honda believes its development efforts mean its 2021 Formula 1 engine exceeds Mercedes’ 2020 performance level, boosting Red Bull’s hopes it can mount a championship challenge.
Mercedes’ progress with its 2020 engine surprised Honda, which felt it had made a good step from 2019. The engine advantage and Mercedes’ superior car platform meant it dominated the season on its way to a seventh consecutive title double.
During the 2020 season Honda announced it had decided to withdraw from F1 at the end of 2021 but committed to a major development programme for its farewell season and opted to bring forward a design that was going to be implemented in 2022.
The engine gains also include extra developments in collaboration with fuel and oil supplier ExxonMobil.
Honda F1 technical director Toyoharu Tanabe told The Race: “I believe we exceeded last year’s Mercedes. It depends on the conditions.
“But we have no idea how much improvement has been done in this off-season on Mercedes’ side.
“We will see when we start qualifying. And after the race.”
Eclipsing the 2020 Mercedes is a crucial box for Honda to have ticked.
However, it is not underestimating the potential for Mercedes to have moved out of reach with its own gains.
Mercedes says it has “innovations” on its 2021 F1 engine it has never raced before.
“Last year, we saw a big step in their development,” Tanabe cautioned.
“It’s very hard to guess what’s going on and the result of their development. We have no answer yet.”
Red Bull felt the three-day test in Bahrain represented its best pre-season in recent years and Tanabe agreed from a Honda perspective, saying it was “definitely better than previous years”.
The all-new Honda engine ran strongly, with Max Verstappen recording more laps than anybody on the opening day. Red Bull was able to complete its full run plan, although its sister team AlphaTauri had some minor setbacks including an energy recovery system calibration error.
Honda has tested its strongest engine mode, which must be used across qualifying and the race, as well as its reliability at that setting, and expressed itself “happy with our result”.
One of the boosts on the reliability side was how warm it was in Bahrain, with ambient temperatures of 34C at one stage among the highest the engine will face all year.
Tanabe said three days of running was not enough to be completely certain of good reliability for the season and revealed Honda did have small “concerns” it needed to address before the first race.
But he said the test was “a good sign for reliability” and even admitted: “Actually, the number of problems is lower than I expected.”
The collective strength of the test, combined with Mercedes’ car having a rear instability issue it must resolve, has raised hopes Red Bull will finally fight for a title in the V6 turbo-hybrid era.
“I hope we will be in a position to fight for the championship against Mercedes,” said Tanabe.
“But I know very much how strong Mercedes are in terms of technical [knowledge], chassis side, PU side, drivers, teamwork.
“It’s a little bit too early to say something after the three-day test.”