Fourth time lucky? Honda steps forward in preseason testing

The Honda logo on the 2018 Toro Rosso car

They say that Formula One preseason testing is notoriously difficult to read, but perhaps that’s never been as true as during last week’s (26 February to 1 March) snowed-out opening test.

So powerful was the so-called ‘beast from the east’ as it swept through Europe that even the usually temperate climes of Barcelona were reduced to below freezing, covering the circuit with snow on the third day and minimising the usefulness of running on the other three.

Though measuring performance in the wintery conditions was out of the question, the tentative signs of progress in one of the least likely of places began to emerge from the foggy whiteness of the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.

Honda, newly partnered with Toro Rosso, has taken a big step forward.

Japanese engine manufacturer Honda has been out of favour in Formula One for all three seasons it has been competing, but never more so than in 2017, when its fractious relationship with McLaren finally crumbled.

Though its underwhelming 2015 debut engine was much improved upon in 2016, a wholesale redesign for last season was a major step backwards in both performance and reliability, pushing partner McLaren far beyond breaking point and leading to an ugly and public divorce.

McLaren’s pathway out of the increasingly toxic relationship was via Toro Rosso which agreed to trade its supply of Renault engines for the Honda motors. It was a win for McLaren, but even though perennial midfielder Toro Rosso became a de facto manufacturer-backed team in the process, few thought its side of the deal was anything more than a dud.

Fast forward to winter testing, however, and a very different picture is beginning to form.

Whereas this time last year Honda’s engine wasn’t good enough to get close to even half of the mileage banked by then lap leader Mercedes, this year Toro Rosso-Honda completed more laps than any other team.

Whereas this time last year McLaren spent as much time diagnosing Honda’s technical problems as it did with its car on the circuit, this year Toro Rosso experienced only uneventful, smooth running.

“I don’t see any problems,” Toro Rosso principal Franz Tost said. “The power unit is working quite well.

“Honda have made a lot of progress in the last months on the reliability side as well as the performance side, so we are looking forward to this season.”

But there’s more on the line for the fledgling Toro Rosso-Honda partnership than mere dignity. The Italian team was saddled with the unpopular engines by its senior sister team, Red Bull Racing, which is now in the final year of an unhappy marriage to its own engine partner, Renault.

If Honda can prove it has what it takes to make a race-winning engine with Toro Rosso, its path will be clear to pair with Red Bull Racing, a team with the resources to make a race-winning chassis, in 2019.

The clock is ticking, however, with Renault mandating that it be given notice either way by 15 May, shortly after the fifth round of the season.

But Honda undoubtedly remains the least potent of the four Formula One engines despite its offseason improvements, with Toro Rosso technical director James Key confirming the Japanese motor will still be the slowest on the track by round one.

However, Key also has faith that progress will be swift this season.

“Obviously they’ve made steps for this year, and that’s encouraging,” he told Sky Sports. “As long as that trend continues, there’s no reason why they can’t genuinely be challenging Renault by mid-season or the end of season.”

Now’s the time for Honda to finally repay that faith.