Honda boss says Verstappen 'is like seeing Senna'

Honda F1 managing director Masashi Yamamoto says that Max Verstappen is a key part of the company’s hopes and plans for its future in Formula 1.

The 22-year-old Dutch driver has been a sensation since joining the sport in 2015, initially with Toro Rosso and subsequently promoted to the senior Red Bull team.

In 102 starts so far, Verstappen has picked up eight race victories with his current team, including three in 2019 after the switch from Renault to Honda engines. Last year also saw him claim his maiden F1 pole position in Hungary, with a repeat later in the year at Brazil.

It’s led Yamamoto to compare Verstappen to a three-time world champion and icon of the sport, Ayrton Senna.

“He’s young, but his driving is really impressive,” he told Motorsport.com this week. “It looks like seeing a young Senna, with his relationship with Honda.”

That relationship between driver and manufacturer and driver has already grown to be a strong and close one in the last 12 months.

“Max maybe pays respect to Honda, he feels Honda is familiar,” suggested Yamamoto. “The [Honda] badge he showed on the podium in Austria proved that he was very happy as well.

“[That means] we want to provide a good engine for him,” he said, adding hurriedly in case there should be any doubt: “Of course, all the four drivers are very important for us

“He also has been to the F1 R&D centre and our mass production site,” he continued. “There’s many, many people and he has actually seen it. He went through a tunnel of people getting high fives, like one kilometre long!

Masashi Yamamoto (JPN) Honda Racing F1 Managing Director.

“The passion we showed towards winning made the relationship stronger with him,” Yamamoto insisted. “That kind of thing maybe gave him a stronger impression about Honda, and a stronger commitment to Honda.

“As Honda, we see him as a very important factor with Honda’s project,” he summarised.

Honda’s performance is certainly hugely improved since the dark time of its troubled three-year partnership with McLaren from 2015 until 2017. The current Honda 1.6 V6T power unit was seen as the most improved engine on the grid last season, possibly now even a match for those from Mercedes and Ferrari.

It’s possible that Verstappen could be in the title mix in 2020, and that Red Bull itself could be contending for the constructors championship that it last won in 2013 with Sebastian Vettel.

The amount of money being poured into the F1 project had raised questions about whether the parent business might pull the plug on the endeavour. But Honda confirmed recently that it will definitely continue to supply engines to Red Bull and Toro Rosso until at least the end of 2021.

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Honda progress stems from 'lessons and countermeasures'

Honda has said that it is learning every race how to continue improve its engine step-by-step, and that the approach is paying dividends with victories for Red Bull in Austria and Germany.

Honda’s F1 managing director Masashi Yamamoto added that lessons from the Canadian and French Grands Prix had proved to be particularly important.

The latter race saw Max Verstappen finish in only fourth place, but Yamamoto told Autosport magazine that what they had learned that day at the Circuit Paul Ricard proved crucial toward their success in the next race at the Red Bull Ring.

The step forward between france and Austria was so pronounced that at the time Verstappen praised Honda for learning to be “not be so conservative” with its latest specification of power unit.

“I see why Max is saying we learned how to push the engine in certain conditions,” Yamamoto said. “We learned a lot from Canada and France, for the heat especially.

“I can understand why Max compares France and Austria,” he continued. “We put in a countermeasure before going to Austria, and it worked really well.”

By contrast, Mercedes struggled to cool Lewis Hamilton’s car in the heatwave conditions at Spielberg that day, resulting in the reigning world champion’s worst result of the season to that point in fifth place.

Honda and Red Bull went on to make another big leap forward in time for the German Grand Prix at Hockenheim.

“We learned something from France and then we improved our usage for Austria,” Honda F1 technical director Toyoharu Tanabe told Autosport. “Then we learned something from Austria and improved something for Germany.

“We tried to make everything optimal,” he added, explaining that it wasn’t possible to get everything right in the first iteration of the Honda RA619H.

“It’s not perfect because of the different conditions we see for the first time,” he said. “Every time we update the calibration or usage after that kind of experience.”

Toyoharu Tanabe (JPN) Honda Racing F1 Technical Director.

Despite the breakthrough wins – and a maiden pole position for Verstappen at Hungary – Honda is still wary about pushing too hard, too fast if it means jeopardising the reliability that’s seen the Dutch driver finish all 12 races so far this season.

“Low performance, we can run [with],” Tanabe said. “But a reliability issue gives a big penalty, it means we cannot run.

“We always need to make a balance between performance and reliability,” he insisted. “You need to guarantee a certain level of reliability, and then you need to start the performance.

“Otherwise we cannot run, and that’s a very serious problem trackside.”

Already on the third specification of their power unit, Honda now faces a big question about the timing of any future upgrades given that penalties will put their drivers at the back of the grid.

“At the moment no decision has been made yet,” said Tanabe, adding that the precise timing would be the result of discussions with the Red Bull and Toro Rosso teams.

Despite the recent return to winning ways, Honda F1’s parent company is still discussing whether or not to continue their presence in the sport beyond the end of 2020.

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