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F1 2022, Honda, Red Bull Racing, Max Verstappen, Alpine, Otmar Szafnauer, Mercedes, Lewis Hamilton, George Russell

Timing is everything in Formula 1, but in recent decades Honda has proved it has a poor sense of occasion.

Who could forget its decision to withdraw at the end of the 2008 season? Years of underachievement meant the F1 program was easy to cut at the height of the global financial crisis, but the 2009 car the team had been working — and spending — on turned out to be a real weapon and swept the drivers and constructors title double under the guise of Brawn GP.

The Japanese marque made a comeback as a power unit supplier in 2015, and after a long, gruelling and at times humiliating journey, it finally started winning races in 2019.

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In 2020 it announced it was withdrawing from F1 again, and in 2021 Max Verstappen won the title with a Honda engine in the back of his car — and that same now unbranded block is leading both title tables this season.

But there are signs Honda might have yet another change of heart. A party of top executives were at the Austrian Grand Prix, the same week the sport got close to agreeing to new engine rules for 2026, and under the control of a new CEO, the company isn’t ruling out a comeback this decade.

How much will F1 have changed by the time it makes yet another return? Alpine hopes at least a bit. The French team is continuing to bolster its resourcing despite the implementation of the budget cap as it attempts to reverse years of its small-spending strategy that delivered it so little success.

Meanwhile, Lewis Hamilton says he can see teammate George Russell as an eventual successor to the Mercedes leadership, with the younger Briton leading his teammate in the drivers standings for a 10th straight round.

HONDA LEAVES DOOR AJAR FOR FIFTH F1 COMEBACK

Honda engines are leading the constructors championship, but you wouldn’t know it looking at the classification sheet.

Officially Red Bull Racing and AlphaTauri are powered by Red Bull Powertrains, but in reality they’re Honda motors built and serviced in Sakura, Japan.

It’s a customer agreement Red Bull managed to talk itself into to preserve its status as a new engine builder to secure development concessions under the new rules due in 2026, when it will partner Porsche.

Leclerc wins dramatic Austrian GP | 01:46

The only evidence of it is the tiny Honda Racing Corporation logo on the cars’ engine cover — a far cry from the prominent branding of years past.

Officially Honda withdrew at the end of 2021 to throw its F1 resources into improving the environmental credentials of the automotive side of its business — undoubtedly a worth aim.

But the combination of F1’s growing popularity, the Honda power unit’s status as a class leader and F1’s ambitions to be carbon neutral by 2030 — including via technologies it hopes will be directly transferable to the mobility world — has clearly caught the Japanese marque’s eye.

“It is not a closed door,” Honda Racing Corporation CEO Koji Watanabe told the F1 website. “My understanding is that F1 is discussing to decide the regulations for 2026, and definitely the direction is carbon neutrality. That is the same direction as us. It is probably also a good opportunity to study carbon neutrality to F1, so it’s not a closed door.”

But he admitted it was too early to say Honda was considering a path back to F1.

“Of course we just finished and concluded our activities [in F1]so nothing [has been] discussed within the Honda company about 2026 season. So, no plan,” he said.

It would be quite the about-turn, but the withdrawal decision was made in the era of a different CEO, and the 2021-appointed Toshihiro Mibe is thought to be more inclined to make sure Honda receives a little more of the accolades its technology deserves. .

But how to do it?

The new engine rules, likely to be a simplified version of the current regulations, are due in 2026 and present a neat pathway back in. But with Red Bull set to partner with Porsche, a new alliance would need to be forged — or a team bought outright to take control of its own destiny.

“If we want to return to F1 in 2026, probably we need to decide within one to one and a half years,” Watanabe said.

Those are some big decisions to make in a short time frame, but it would be very on brand for Honda to make them and secure a fifth F1 comeback.

‘That’s just epic’ – F1 at its best | 00:47

ALPINE TO FINALLY MATCH BIG TEAMS ON STAFF

Renault returned to Formula 1 in 2016 with the intention of taking on the sport’s heavy hitters with a fraction of the staff and budget. Clearly that plan hasn’t worked.

Its five-year championship plan was assigned less than 70 per cent of the budget of the biggest teams. Such a dramatic underspend was never going to cut it.

It’s part of the reason the team plateaued in the championship in 2018 and couldn’t fully capitalize on this year’s regulation changes.

It also explains why Cyril Abiteboul and Jerome Stoll, the principal and president of the team respectively, left the sport at the end of 2020, after which it was launched anew as Alpine and given a reset.

Now, with the implementation of the budget cap preventing teams from dramatically outspending each other and with stability in the sport’s commercial framework Alpine has been able to finally target the biggest teams.

Capital works in Enstone are being undertaken, and staff size continues to grow.

Before the pandemic the workforce was sitting at around 700 people. This year’s it’s at around 850, and the team wants to grow that by almost another 100.

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Mercedes and Ferrari employed more than 1,000 people before the budget cap; today that number is thought to be in the 900s.

“There’s a still an element of expansion and investment and we’re committed to that,” Szafnauer told The Race.

“We’re looking at hiring another 75 people, there’s about 850 of us here.

“We’ve got to be at the size of the big teams if we want to fight with the big teams.

“We’ve had good success in recruiting, as well as expanding the site here as well, too. And that’s been recently approved.

“I think work will start just around the corner from us very soon.”

The team is now talking about targeting championships by the middle of the decade, and Fernando Alonso would at least appear to have enough faith that the team is heading in the right direction to suggest he’d like to hang around for at least another two seasons to put him in that window.

Money and staff on their own can’t conjure up championships, but it certainly gives the team a great deal more power over its destiny that it’s had since it returned to the sport.

HAMILTON PRAISES RUSSELL’S CHAMPIONSHIP POTENTIAL

Lewis Hamilton says his new teammate, George Russell, can lead Mercedes to championship success once he bows out of the sport.

Russell has long been highly rated in the Mercedes family, having been a junior driver for his back-to-back rookie GP3 and Formula 2 titles before joining Williams for a three-year apprenticeship.

Russell penalized for Perez collision | 00:58

Some strong drives in lackluster machinery convinced the team to replace sub him in for Valtteri Bottas this season, and the 24-year-old Briton hasn’t disappointed. He’s taken three podium places and is yet to finish a grand prix lower than fifth.

What’s more, he’s led Hamilton in the standings since the second round of the championship — an impressive achievement, even if some bad luck on his teammate’s part has contributed to the run.

Speaking in Austria, Hamilton praised Russell’s work for Mercedes during an unexpectedly difficult year for the previously dominant team.

“It’s been pleasant,” he said. “We’ve worked together incredibly well. George has been super positive, had a positive impact on the work environment.

“It’s generally been a real pleasure to work with him and it’s been great to see his success.

“He’s done such a great job, got great points for the team, and he’s going to continue to improve — he’s going to continue to improve for a long time.”

Seven-time champion Hamilton even ventured that he’d been so impressed with Russell’s work that he was convinced his junior teammate could take over the leadership of the squad to raise it to new title-winning heights.

“I definitely see that he’s got so much potential in him, and he’s in the right place for it as well,” Hamilton said. “I really think that, whether or not I’m here, he has all the qualities to help take this team forward in the future and lead them to success, so I think it’s been the right choice for the team.

“I hope I can be a little bit of a part of helping him progress.”

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