Written by Vyas Ponnuri, Edited by Ishani Aziz
McLaren’s history with Honda as a power unit manufacturer is a rich one. One that has seen World Championships in 1989, 1990, and 1991, and a period of dominance that saw them etch their place as one of the greats of the sport. Winning all but one race in 1988, and sparking one of F1’s famed rivalries, the McLaren-Honda alliance evokes a nostalgia for many followers of the sport.
When McLaren announced a reunion with its old ally Honda from the 2015 season, expectations were high. Moreover, the driver pairing promised to be formidable, with a returning Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button, with then-McLaren chairman Ron Dennis at the helm. It looked like the ultimate recipe for success; all the elements seemed poised to come into place.
What was meant to be an historic alliance, unfortunately marked a historic let down. Honda’s first year returning to F1 with its RA615H never really lived up to the lofty expectations. The engine was down on power, and extremely unreliable, and at times, 200hp down on its rivals. McLaren were extremely expectant too, providing a very demanding timeframe and expecting success in a short span of time. Nonetheless, the partnership was doomed, McLaren slumping to their worst finishing position of ninth in the standings in 2015. The partnership never really took off, both sides parting ways at the end of the 2017 season.
Since then, both parties have achieved their own respective successes. McLaren recorded numerous podium finishes en-route to their first victory in almost a decade; and Honda went on to power Max Verstappen to a maiden world championship in 2021, before calling it a day in F1.
So why then has Honda returned to the F1 world after what seemed like a decisive exit?
Why are McLaren and Honda talking again?
Not too long ago, the FIA announced their list of engine suppliers for the 2026 F1 season when the new engine regulations are set to come into effect. The FIA revealed the six parties to have registered as engine suppliers for the 2026-30 cycle: Ferrari, Alpine Racing, Mercedes, Red Bull Ford, Audi, and Honda Racing Corporation. Following Red Bull and Ford announcing a collaboration at the former’s launch event earlier, this clearly announced to the public that Red Bull weren’t looking towards a return to their former suppliers. And one can expect their sister team Alpha Tauri to follow suit, given the close-knit relationship between both entities.
Then with Audi’s takeover of the current Alfa Romeo F1 team, the German manufacturer announced their intention to supply power plants to their works team from 2026. Ferrari and Mercedes are looking to manufacture their own power units, so their plans are clear for the future. Aston Martin and Haas are equally affiliated with Mercedes and Ferrari respectively.
This leaves only two parties whose plans for the future unclear: McLaren and Williams. There have been recent developments in Williams’ communication with Porsche, but it remains a possibility that they could return to Honda power. Ultimately that leaves McLaren as a viable candidate customer for the Japanese outfit, and sure enough, talks between both parties have surfaced once again.
Why do both parties want to reunite?
Honda has hinted at a return to F1 ever since the technicalities of the new engine regulations were revealed. This has come about as a result of greater content regarding the upcoming engine regulations, which are set to increase the hybrid power output in the engines, the MGU-K generating 350 kW energy, compared to 120 kW from the MGU-K and MGU-H today. This increase in electrical energy is set to make up for the loss of the MGU-H from the power unit, and causes more energy to be regenerated under braking. In addition, the fuels powering the cars will be fully sustainable, and will not come about by burning new fossil fuels.
Furthermore, the power units are set to become more efficient, and lighter from 2026, which goes hand in hand with Honda’s “Size zero” engine concept. The fuel consumption will also be cut down to 70 kg per race, from 100 kg now. F1 will also look to become more environmentally responsible, with materials such as cobalt recyclable after use, and mandation of batteries being recyclable from 2026. These factors align with Honda’s aims for a sustainable future, and thus, the Japanese manufacturer registered itself as an engine supplier for 2026.
Looking at the other end, McLaren are aiming to make a step up to become championship contenders once again. The Woking-based team are getting the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle together, as they look to continue their rise in the sport from their dire stint with Honda. Switching to Renault and then Mercedes power, the team has gone from strength to strength, bagging nine podiums and even a race win after parting ways with Honda. They have a young star in Lando Norris, who is establishing himself as a force to reckon with for the future, and another young prodigy in Oscar Piastri, who comes off the back of a glittering junior career, and was the centre of an off-track battle between Alpine and McLaren, the latter winning out. Given the hype, McLaren will expect him to perform strongly. McLaren will also bring together a big piece of the jigsaw puzzle, an in-house wind tunnel, operable from 2023, that will help them make big gains in 2024 and 2025. The team’s talks have evolved with Honda, following the latter’s success with Red Bull and Alpha Tauri in the past few seasons.
What could this mean for McLaren?
Usually, hearing the words McLaren and Honda in the same sentence either brings chills or brings shudders to the followers. This tale has gone both ways in the past, and one will be hoping for better times than their mid-2010s struggles. This time, both parties are better off compared to 2015, when they last came together. Their partnership would be a lot more fruitful this time, with Honda having greater experience of the hybrid power unit.
Another factor aiding Honda here is their joining at the dawn of the new era of engine regulations, which will help them stay at par with their competitors in terms of experience, and not behind the learning curve. Although, there needs to be a stronger relationship and co-ordination between both parties this time, to avoid any conflicts like that of 2015. Should Honda power McLaren for 2026, they will have to design the power unit in a way to suit the McLaren design philosophy, once again, learning from their mistakes of 2015. Further, McLaren shouldn’t look to pressure Honda for instant success, as Ron Dennis had done in 2015.
The talks might still be in their initial stages now, but the circumstances make McLaren a great partner for Honda, and thus, it could even end up being a future prospect to see the McLaren-Honda moniker return to the grid.