Honda has not ruled out a possible comeback to Formula 1 in 2026, and is keeping a careful eye on grand prix racing's carbon neutral future plans.
The Japanese manufacturer withdrew from F1 at the conclusion of last year due to its parent company's desire to invest in zero-emission technologies for road vehicles.
With Red Bull taking over the operation of the Honda power units that helped Max Verstappen win the drivers' title, Honda did not turn its back on the team entirely.
The engines will continue to be manufactured, assembled, and supported by Honda, with Honda Racing Corporation (HRC) logos showing on the Red Bull and AlphaTauri vehicles.
Honda's 2021 championship victory and F1's huge effort for a carbon-neutral future ahead of its move to new rules and sustainable fuels in 2026 have sparked rumors that the Japanese manufacturer may return.
Senior Honda employees, including Honda's CEO Toshihiro Mibe, its chairman Seiji Kuraishi, and HRC president Koji Watanabe, as well as HRC director Yasuhiro Asaki, attended the Austrian Grand Prix last weekend, which fueled such speculation.
While the business says there has been no formal change of heart about an F1 program, it has admitted to closely monitoring the development of the 2026 engine regulations.
Speaking at the Red Bull Ring, Watanabe said: “Formula 1 is the top motorsports category, so we are always watching what is happening in the F1 world.
“Of course, we just finished and concluded our activities, so nothing [has been] discussed within the Honda company about 2026 season. So, no plan.
“[But] it is not a closed door. According to my knowledge, F1 is currently debating the 2026 regulations, and the direction is unquestionably carbon neutrality.
“That is the same direction as us, so we don't have to [diverge] from carbon neutrality through F1 now.
“It is probably also a good opportunity to study carbon neutral F1, so it’s not a closed door.”
Watanabe stated that Honda's carbon-neutral road vehicle program would need to be finalized before a return to F1 would be seriously considered.
Watanabe responded to Autosport's question regarding the most important conditions for Honda's return to Formula One by stating, "I believe there are a number of elements we need to monitor.
“But once we decided to conclude the F1 because of mass production [road cars] and carbon neutrality, first we need to concentrate on this side.
“Then, once we can realise that we can achieve this, we can consider F1.”
Watanabe said that a decision must be taken by the end of 2023 regarding a potential 2026 return.
“I don't know the exact time frame,” he said. “But if we want to return to F1 in 2026, probably we need to decide within 1-1.5 years.”
Honda's future comeback to F1 remains unknown, but Red Bull's role is set to increase. With the return of the 'Honda' moniker, discussions are currently underway regarding a tighter technical relationship and a rebranding of Red Bull teams.
Watanabe continued, "Until 2025, Honda will serve as a sort of team partner for both teams. And although the specifics have not yet been determined, HRC will serve as a technical partner to both teams until 2025."
Watanabe responded to a request for a change in branding strategy by stating, "We need to decide for the upcoming season, but personally I want to use more Honda....
Therefore, the amalgamation of Honda and HRC."
When Red Bull took over running the Honda power units for this season with its new powertrains business, it was first believed that the Milton Keynes-based company had acquired the engines' intellectual property rights.
During discussions regarding 2026 regulations, the issue of Honda's IP protection over its power units became very pertinent, and it was agreed that new entrants would be granted allowances to enable them catch up to more established manufacturers.
In anticipation of a possible partnership with Porsche, Red Bull was eager to argue that it should be categorized as a new entry, while rivals argued that its Honda heritage meant it should be regarded as an established company.
Watanabe has since stated that Red Bull never purchased the engine's intellectual property, therefore it will return to Honda when the present agreement expires in 2025.
“They can utilise the IP, but we didn't sell the IP to them,” he said. “It is just a lease; so approval of utilising the IP.”