Red Bull Racing Team Principal Christian Horner talks with Red Bull Racing Team Consultant Dr Helmut Marko and Renault Sport F1 Managing Director Cyril Abiteboul in the Paddock before practice for the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix at Bahrain International Circuit on April 6, 2018 in Bahrain, Bahrain. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Red Bull Racing has to make a decision on their engine suppliers for the 2019 season soon. The choice is restricted to continuing with the Renault engines (badged as TAG Heuer engines since 2016) or switching to Honda engines. What decision will this leading Formula 1 team make for the 2019 season?

Red Bull Racing – Renault or Honda Engines for 2019?

The end of the V8 engine era in 2013 was the last year of dominance for Red Bull in F1. After four consecutive years of winning the constructors’ and drivers’ championship, the Milton Keynes-based team has not been fighting for top honors since. In the 1.6L V6 Hybrid engine era, the Renault engines have been lagging behind the Mercedes and Ferrari engines in performance.

Red Bull has felt that the Renault engines have held them back in their fight for titles. But with Mercedes and Ferrari reluctant to supply engines to such a strong competitor, there has been no choice. As the contract with Renault ends in 2018, an important decision and deadline looms for Red Bull.

Red Bull and Renault partnership in the V8 Engine Era

Austrian Dietrich Mateschitz, owner of Energy drinks major Red Bull, purchased Jaguar Racing in 2005 and rebranded it as Red Bull Racing. The new team was supplied by Cosworth and Ferrari in the first two years of its existence. The long relationship with Renault engines started in 2007 and has lasted 12 years.

The Adrian Newey-designed Red Bull challengers started making their way to the front of the grid, powered by Renault engines. Finally, the first race win came in 2009, followed by four constructors’ and drivers’ championships (2010-2013) for the Red Bull team. Led by Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber, Red Bull powered to 47 wins in the last five seasons of the V8 engine era.

Fractious Relationship with Renault Since 2014

The new 1.6L V6 Hybrid engine era started in 2014 with a very troubled winter testing for Red Bull. The first season was dominated by Mercedes when they swept to 16 wins in 19 races. Red Bull picked up all the three race wins by a non-Mercedes team.

But it was clear that the Renault engine was lagging behind the class-leading Mercedes engine in terms of performance and reliability. It was galling for a prolific winner like Red Bull to be so far behind. They blamed the Renault engines for all their problems.

In 2015, a winless season followed for Red Bull with Renault engines continuing to underperform. The management of Red Bull led by Team Principal Christian Horner and Dr Helmut Marko started berating Renault for not delivering on their promises.

Bitter Split Averted

With harsh words being exchanged Red Bull and Renault seemed headed for a divorce at the end of 2015. Red Bull threatened to leave the sport if they did not get a competitive engine supplier. Horner said:“You can clearly see there are two competitive power units in F1  and you do not have to be a rocket scientist to work out which two those are.

“It is quite clear that one of those will not supply us with an engine, so that leaves really only one option and if that option is not available then you have got to question – as Dietrich made clear earlier in the year – he wants to race with a competitive engine or we won’t have an engine.”

Ferrari and Mercedes turned a deaf ear to the pleas from the Red Bull team. Finally Red Bull was forced to re-sign with Renault for 2016. The engines were badged as TAG Heuer engines and the relationship continues until the end of the 2018 season. The Renault engines have improved, but they are still not in the league of the Ferrari and Mercedes engines. Another six wins has been secured by Red Bull from 2016 till the current season.

Renault or Honda Engines for 2019

Honda engines entered the fray as engine suppliers in 2015 with McLaren as their works team. Much was expected of the renewal of an iconic partnership. But after three seasons of despair, with the Honda engines lagging far behind the three established engine suppliers, a bitter divorce ensued in 2017. Ironically, Renault replaced Honda as McLaren’s engine supplier.

In a bid to keep the Japanese manufacturer in F1, a complex deal was worked out with the Red Bull junior team Toro Rosso becoming the sole team Honda would supply in 2018. This would also let the senior Red Bull team study the Honda engines from the inside and make a decision on their engine suppliers for 2019 – Renault or Honda engines.

Honda has the facilities and the resources to excel. But they have struggled delivering performance with the V6 hybrid engines, even though their top bosses have promised much. The Honda engines have not yet delivered even a podium finish in their return to F1.

Five races into the 2018 season, Renault wants Red Bull to make a decision on the renewal of their contract by the end of May 2018. Horner has said they will take a few more weeks to make the decision.

Renault’s Cyril Abiteboul said:“It’s not because we want to be difficult, it’s simply because we need to order parts. That notice was May 15 of the year. There were reasons for that, those reasons continue to stand, that’s why we are urging Red Bull to make a decision.”

Honda’s Terms to Supply Red Bull

Honda suffered a crucial loss of face after its failed partnership with McLaren. Though they have remained in the sport with Toro Rosso, supplying a high profile team like Red Bull will bring back high pressure on Honda.

Honda motorsport boss Masashi Yamamoto said:“We are very positive. To deal with Red Bull is a really big thing for Honda, because they are a top team. This gives us a sort of pressure as an engine manufacturer. We have to consider many aspects very well, can we really deal with Red Bull’s size? We have to feel the responsibility to supply the engine.”

Yamamoto things supplying a second team in F1 will be a challenge. But it will also offer an opportunity for them to promote one of their junior drivers to F1. The Honda bosses will be under no illusion about the pressure Red Bull will bring to bear on them to deliver race winning engines.

Crucial Decision for Red Bull

A radical overhaul in the engine rules will come into force in 2021. Formula 1 in a bid to attract new engine suppliers to the sport is looking to simplify the engine specifications and bring in a new generation of hybrid engines. This will surely attract other manufacturers and provide Red Bull with a wider choice of engine suppliers. So for the next two years (2019, 2020), Red Bull has to choose between the Renault and Honda engines.

Renault is definitely ahead of the Honda engines in reliability and performance at the moment. But Red Bull will be assessing the potential of Honda to develop their engines during the current season with Toro Rosso. Red Bull will see if they can develop a technical partnership with Honda that will provide a decisive push to the development of the engines. The team would have the advantage of being the works team of the Japanese manufacturer in 2019.

Red Bull is firmly bidding to catch up with frontrunners Mercedes and Ferrari this season. They have one of the best driver pairings on the grid in Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo. Ricciardo’s contract ends this year. The Australian seems to be hedging his bets on re-signing with Red Bull. He has prospects of joining one of the top teams for 2019. The decision Red Bull make on their engine suppliers will also be a crucial factor in Ricciardo’s decision.

Both Renault and Honda plan to bring engine updates to the Canadian GP. Will Red Bull evaluate the updates from both engine manufacturers before making a decision? Horner suggested this when he said:“There won’t be a decision in May. I think potentially both engine suppliers are bringing an upgrade around Montreal so we wait and see with interest.”

For Red Bull, the decision will determine their championship winning hopes for the next two seasons. Do they stay in a known but somewhat fractious relationship with Renault or do they join hands with Honda with its poor track record in the hybrid engine era?

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