Why F1 must not save Honda

Honda has been all the rage this season — or perhaps a source of rage if you work for McLaren — thanks to the company’s inexplicable leap backwards in performance ahead of a season in which podiums were pencilled.

Lofty launch target proved unfounded when Honda revealed it knew its shortcomings as early as December [http://www.autosport.com/premium/feature/7465/under-the-skin-of-hondaEURTMs-latest-f1-saga], and early divorce rumours have since swirled.

Meanwhile the results have been speaking for themselves — one finish between both cars over three races promises to make 2017 the worst year by far for the three-season McLaren-Honda partnership.

And so the sport’s incredulity has ended. Honda can no longer be called a slow starter or be dismissed as a temporary novelty; its underperformance in motorsport’s highest performing category is now officially problematic.

So perturbed is the sport by Honda’s ongoing struggles that exploratory discussion have begun into a Mercedes-Honda tie-up to fast-track the Japanese manufacturer’s painfully slow progress [http://www.autosport.com/news/report.php/id/129154] — but such a deal would be nothing but problematic.

On the one hand is the competitive nature of such a buddy system. Mercedes isn’t about to give away its secrets any more than it has gone out of its way to ensure its engine customers can access maximum horsepower in the same way it can.

More to the point, if a Mercedes-engined team’s success contributes to the Mercedes F1 narrative — though worth noting is no Mercedes customer has won a race since 2012 — it would be in Mercedes’s interests to ensure Honda is no more competitive than any of those customers, which would restore McLaren to the midfield at best.

But rival assistance is questionable beyond mere ethics. What does the sharing of intellectual property in a multi-million dollar sport make of the Formula One competition?

Already Red Bull Racing is reported to be sizing up its chances of acting as a roadblock, and it’s easy to understand why — who came to engine partner Renault assistance when the French manufacturer took a competitive step backwards in 2015?

Even today Renault is grappling with reliability problems — until now it has been using a 2016-spec MGU-K, which has carried a significant weight and power handicap, because the 2017 version proved chronically unreliable in testing — but the Red Bull Racing and Toro Rosso have had to cop it without outside help.

But say for a moment that Mercedes did help Honda build a competitive power unit and in doing so that McLaren discovered its much-hyped chassis is in reality desperately lacking. Should Mercedes or Ferrari, equipped with the season’s best aerodynamic packages, then oblige to lend their design data to Woking?

The very proposition is laughable — and not just because McLaren was sprung with Ferrari design documents in 2007’s infamous ‘spygate’ scandal — so why should sharing power unit parts, no less important in performance terms, be any more acceptable?

Some will make the case that it is because F1 risks losing one of its few competitors — but then what makes Honda so deserving of saviour when the sport has been more than happy to push numerous teams to the wall and beyond in the name of ‘compete or perish’. Manor, Caterham and HRT all collapsed in recent times after periods of non-success. Sauber, too, would have been grateful for assistance when it teetered on the brink of ruin last season.

The fact is that tweaks to the sport’s power unit rules, in particular the deletion of development tokens, and talk of simplifying power units post-2020 are founded on a so-called performance disparity said to be damaging the sport. In reality that gap has largely been between Honda and everyone else rather than any more chronic a problem.

Both Renault and Ferrari’s hybrid engines have been woefully off the pace, but both have since won races and this year there is approximate parity between the three, as was the case in the V8 era, when few complained about the differences.

Evidently F1’s complicated engines are surmountable engineering exercises — so if Honda cannot bridge the gap, even with rule changes on its side, there can be no argument made to break down what must be one of Formula One’s central tenets as a sport of bespoke constructors: own your intellectual property.

Along with countless others, this writer would dearly love to see McLaren-Honda win — for the sport and for the hardworking engineers toiling at Honda — but if victory proves unreachable, it is Honda and not Formula One that must reassess its terms.