“As you’ve seen, the Mercedes is very fast,” says Toyoharu Tanabe, Honda’s F1 technical boss and something of a master of understatement. “The gap between the top teams is very big and has stayed that way. But both Red Bull and Honda are working very hard to improve our performance and catch up with them as soon as possible.”
Notably, despite the gap to Mercedes and the tensions in both Red Bull’s and Honda’s previous relationships, the alliance seems free of discord – perhaps because it’s clear that both the chassis and powertrain are lacking relative to the Mercedes.
“The performance gap comes from both chassis and power unit,” says Tanabe. “We can’t tell exactly where the time comes from, so we need to work together to improve our performance. We don’t say it’s the chassis and they don’t say it’s the power unit. We’re working very closely and hard.”
Verstappen echoes that sentiment; in fact, he reckons the relationship “has only become better” this season. “When you first start working together, it’s always a bit of a question about how communication will be,” he says. “But from the very first test, it has worked really well – and it got better through the year.
“We introduced a few upgrades throughout last year, and by the end of the year we were looking very strong. It’s all working well together this year: we’re just trying to find more performance.”
Red Bull has been hindered by a balance issue with its chassis that has made it difficult to drive on the limit and led to a number of spins for Verstappen and his Anglo-Thai teammate, Alex Albon. That imbalance has particularly hampered the RB16 in qualifying, which has left both drivers having to battle through the order to salvage results on Sundays.
Albon says: “At the moment, we don’t really know what’s going on from qualifying to the race. The race car is obviously faster, but we need to unlock it more in qualifying.” Those qualifying struggles and balance issues have particularly hampered Albon, leaving him well down the grid in some events, thus opening him up to incidents in races, such as his clash with Haas’s Kevin Magnussen in the British Grand Prix.
Albon denies that he’s struggling, saying: “I’m not worried in the sense that I feel like it’s been tough or it’s going badly.” The team seems to agree: after Albon qualified 12th for the British GP, Red Bull chief engineer Paul Monaghan said “the challenge lies more with us than it does with Alex, to be brutally honest”.