“What is the best route forward to competitiveness?” Christian Horner pondered during the first series of Drive to Survive. “Is it to move to another manufacturer?
"One that would allow us to have an input into the design of an engine, creating true harmony between engine and chassis.”
The Red Bull boss was right to consider his options. In 2018, his team was stuck as a Renault customer with an underperforming engine unable to take the fight to Mercedes and Ferrari at the front.
Horner rolled the dice, striking up a works engine partnership with Honda. It proved to be one of the most inspired decisions in Formula 1 in recent years, becoming the basis for Max Verstappen’s title-winning success in 2021 and the dominance the team have gone on to enjoy ever since.
Aston Martin are now in a similar position to where Red Bull were five years ago. While their Mercedes engine is undoubtedly better than the Renault of 2018, they still lack the ‘true harmony’ required to go from regular podiums to challenging for race wins.
This could now all be set to change. The Green Machine have announced they will join Honda in an exclusive works engine arrangement from 2026. This is great news for the team and the sport as a whole.
The number of engine manufacturers in the sport will have doubled from the start of the turbo-hybrid era by 2026 with Honda, Audi and Ford joining long-standing suppliers Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault.
The news means there will be at least six works teams on the grid in 2026 – Aston Martin, Red Bull, Sauber, Ferrari, Mercedes and Alpine. They will all have an engine manufacturer that they can work closely with, designing their components in unison to make the most of their package.
The competitiveness of Formula 1 could be one of the biggest benefactors, especially at the front of the grid. Naturally, a works partnership does not guarantee success as proven by Alpine over the years. However, it is usually an important prerequisite for those who want to challenge for the title.
In the 21st century alone only Brawn and Red Bull have been able to overcome the odds to claim both championships as customer teams in 2009 and 2010. Indeed, the Energy Drink giants' title-winning successes in the following years came after they upgraded their agreement with Renault to become a works partner before that agreement came to an end in 2015.
Aston Martin CEO Martin Whitmarsh admitted as much as he announced his team’s exclusive partnership with Honda suggesting it would finally take them to the next stage.
“In my view, it’s very difficult to win consistently championships without a full works relationship,” Whitmarsh said in a press conference.
“F1 cars are a pretty tightly packaged vehicle; therefore, decisions on power units in F1 aren’t just about combustion engines and turbos. It includes a range of other equipment that has a fairly significant impact on how you configure the car.
“If you’re a customer team, you take what the works team has predetermined, and that’s often quite compromised to your own particular ambitions.”
The hope is now that more teams will be able to compete for race wins, giving Formula 1 fans the kind of action that they crave.
While the Aston Martin deal should be embraced by F1 followers it could be a bad sign for McLaren fans.
The Woking-based outfit are now the only team with serious ambitions of challenging at the front of the grid to be without a works partnership for 2026.
Ironically, McLaren are perhaps the one team in Formula 1 history to benefit most from works partnerships. Under the leadership of Ron Dennis, the team enjoyed a favourable relationship with Honda giving them a period of unrivalled dominance in the days of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost.
Later, a 14-year works partnership with Mercedes was the backbone of Mika Hakkinen’s title wins in 1998 and 1999 and Lewis Hamilton’s maiden success in 2008.
McLaren have failed to hit the same heights since the agreement ended at the end of 2009 as Mercedes set up their own works teams. They may not do so again if they cannot get the right exclusive partner to take the fight to the competition at the front.
The 2026 Formula 1 season already promises to be one of the most exciting the sport has had in years. It is now down to the teams and engine manufacturers to deliver and give us the fight at the front that many crave.
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