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10 Questions With Honda F1 Boss Toyoharu Tanabe

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 11/5/2019 Motor Trend Staff
a man standing next to a motorcycle: Honda Formula 1 Tanabe San 2© Motor Trend Staff Honda Formula 1 Tanabe San 2

Toyoharu Tanabe is President and Technical Director of Honda Racing Development UK, Ltd, which means he's basically the big boss for Honda's Formula 1 program, which supports the Red Bull Racing and Toro Rosso teams. Honda has been involved in top-level Grand Prix racing since the '60s, but this latest stint wasn't going very well, until this year, when the teams started to see improvements in both the output and reliability of the Honda power units. (In F1, teams don't call them merely engines anymore because they incorporate not only traditional internal combustion technology but also sophisticated heat and kinetic energy capture-and-return systems.) At the 2019 U.S. Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas, we had a chance to sit down for a 10-minute chat with Tanabe-san.

a person standing in front of a computer screen: Honda-Formula-1-Tanabe-San-1.jpg

MT: How do you feel this season has gone?

TT: So far, we feel like we've made an improvement this year, and we got a win with Red Bull Racing and Max (Verstappen). We think it's been a relatively successful year, but there is still a gap between the top runners and us. So we keep pushing with Red Bull and Toro Rosso.

And we have started to prepare for next year, as well. The remaining two races, we do our best, using the remaining power unit (PU) and chassis. And then we will work hard in the winter season to prepare for next year.

© Motor Trend Staff  

MT: The Manufacturer's and Driver's Championship have been locked up, with Mercedes-AMG winning the former and Lewis Hamilton clinching his sixth championship at this race. What do you do with the last two races?

TT: Basically we stay with our program for this year, no surprises for the remaining to races. We always try to win the race. We make sure our PU and chassis are prepared for the condition of the track; we make them efficient and bring the most performance as we possibly can from the PU. That is our desire.

MT: Honda appears to be on the right trajectory. When you look back at the season, what was the cause for this change?

TT: You have seen in the past few years, we have had a lot of difficulty in reliability and also performance. We learned a lot from those years, from those issues. And then we focused on the key to improving our performance—performance including reliability, as well. We tried to fix the issue. We did our reliability tests. We also tried to improve our power, and again, we tested a lot.

MT: Some of the comments around the paddock this weekend were that maybe one of the teams [Ferrari] was down on performance, perhaps due to a revision or reinterpretation of the rules. How has Honda managed to stay consistent?

TT: It's very difficult to tell using one result from one race. We optimize for each track, not only the PU but also the chassis, which means aerodynamics. And the balance between the PU power and downforce gives you top speed—straight speed. If the mechanical grip or tire management is good but you have a difficult circuit, you make more downforce, which means lower top speed. We always [have to] balance. If you have very strong PU, good chassis, top speed is high. But if you have a strong PU and low-efficiency chassis, top speed stays low. It means you can have the same PU, but chassis efficiency changes track to track, which makes the top speed different. That means it's not easy to tell it seems what happened from just a few days ago.

a close up of a toy car on the road© Motor Trend Staff

MT: What changes will you make for Brazil?

TT: Basically, no change. Brazil is a little bit higher altitude compared to sea level, like here. We optimize our calibration to meet that condition. That is one of the biggest differences from here to Brazil. But basically our setup remains the same.

MT: I noticed a lot more chassis to pavement contact in qualifying than in the race, and by contact, I mean actual sparks flying. Does that mean the race car is set up to be softer during the race?

TT: Depends on where you see the sparks. Maybe drivers used more curb during qualifying; that's when you see a lot of sparks. The contact causes damage on the chassis underside, wings, and floor. They push very hard for one or two laps during qualifying, but the race—56 laps here—is a long distance, many miles, many laps. They drive very calm to save the car. That is one of the biggest differences between here and Brazil. This track is one of the worst, in terms of being bumpy.

MT: In the whole series?

TT: Yes.

MT: Has it gotten worse?

TT: Compared to last year, drivers say it is much worse. A city street [race course] should be bumpy. A permanent track should not be bumpy.

MT: Honda seems to really love Verstappen and his driving style, his aggression. Is he best suited to Honda's overall commitment to racing?

TT: I think Max has a fan base, not only from Honda but from Formula 1 fans—a big fan base. All because of his aggressiveness, passion, driving style, and because he's really fast. Honda works with all its drivers, very much equal. We apply the same number of engineers to each car, each driver. We listen to feedback from each driver and make calibration revisions for each driver. I like all of them.

MT:  They are all your children.

TT: [Laughs] Yes!

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