Honda will bow out of Formula 1 at the end of the year but they could go out in a blaze of glory with Red Bull currently at the top of the Drivers' and Constructors' Standings.
The Japanese engine manufacturer brought forward a brand-new power unit that was originally planned to be introduced in 2022. However, they worked extra hard to put all their eggs on one basket to try and win the World Championship.
There were fears about Honda's reliability, given their history in F1's turbo-hybrid era as well as the complexity of the power units and the difficulty of pushing development forward without having any issues.
Out of the box with no problems
Honda made major changes the internal combustion engine and energy recovery system and immediately it looked strong.
Many expected Red Bull and AlphaTauri to have some teething issues in pre-season testing but all four Honda-powered car ran largely trouble-free.
In fact, AlphaTauri had the most mileage in testing with Pierre Gasly completing 237 laps, the most of all 21 drivers whilst AlphaTauri themselves did 422 laps to be joint top of the lap count along with Alfa Romeo.
The signs were ominous for the rest of the competition and Red Bull's form in Bahrain reiterated the superb job Honda did to find the performance over the winter to match the mighty Mercedes.
Signs of some issues
Gasly, Sergio Perez and Yuki Tsunoda were all forced to use their second MGU-K and energy stores prior to the Emilia Romagna GP after Honda spotted some issues.
It was not a great sign but since the second round of the year, all Honda-powered cars have showed no other indications of reliability concerns.
However, Max Verstappen's bid for the title wasn't helped by these reliability fears. Honda appear to have not ran at full force after the season-opener so Verstappen has not had the optimal straight line speed which was evident in Portugal and Spain when Lewis Hamilton breezed by.
F1 2021 Power Unit Elements Used*
|Driver||Team||Engine||Internal Combustion Engine||Turbo||MGU-H||MGU-K||Energy Store||Control Electronics|
|Max Verstappen||Red Bull||Honda||1||1||1||1||1||1|
|Sergio Perez||Red Bull||Honda||1||1||1||1||2||2|
|Lance Stroll||Aston Martin||Mercedes||2||2||2||2||1||1|
|Sebastian Vettel||Aston Martin||Mercedes||2||2||2||2||1||1|
|Kimi Raikkonen||Alfa Romeo||Ferrari||2||2||2||1||1||1|
|Antonio Giovinazzi||Alfa Romeo||Ferrari||2||2||2||1||1||1|
*During the 2021 season each driver is allowed to use 3 ICE, 3 TC, 3 MGU-H, 3 MGU-K, 2 ES and 2 CE. Once a driver goes above their allocation, they will incur a grid penalty.
Even if Honda have been forced to not run at full pelt, they have clearly been a lot closer to Mercedes. Often, the Honda-powered cars have been in the bottom half of the speedtraps but in 2021 that has changed.
Honda remain around 3-4km/h behind the Mercedes-powered machines although the latest race in Baku suggested that Red Bull and AlphaTauri could have a power unit which is on terms with Mercedes, Aston Martin and Williams at every event.
Mercedes opted to take their second power unit of the year for Azerbaijan but were not outstanding in the speed traps against Red Bull and AlphaTauri who ran an engine which had done nearly 2000km.
"The typical slow street circuit corners followed by the very long straight means that we have to consider the best combination of three factors – power, driveability and energy management and Baku is one of the most difficult circuits from that point of view, " Honda chief engineer Masamitsu Motohashi told the press.
"The final race result shows that we did quite well in terms of energy management and that is thanks to all the hard work and experience of staff in HRD Sakura and HRD UK."
The real test is to come
The next few races will really test Honda. Paul Ricard has been one of Mercedes' most dominant circuits since Formula 1 returned to France in 2018.
The long Mistral Straight and the flat-out Signe corner will be a good indicator as to whether Honda are on par with Mercedes.
Honda may choose to use a fresh power unit for their drivers too in France although this could be pushed back to Austria to give Verstappen more breathing room for later in the season.
Reliability was always going to be key for Verstappen as he cannot afford to lose a possible 26 points through an untimely engine problem which will not only hurt him in one race, but it will damage his chances for the following rounds if he has to change his power unit.
So far, everything has gone smoothly. The fresh Honda power unit should iron out the small issues Honda have had which has stopped Gasly, Tsunoda, Perez and Verstappen from running with maximum power for a long period of time.
A return to the impressive straight line speed which we saw in Bahrain from Red Bull and AlphaTauri would reiterate Honda's incredible progress.
Austria's two altitude races will be another good test for the new Honda power unit. In the past, Red Bull have been excellent at venues which are hundreds of metres above sea-level. It's a trend they will want to continue in Spielberg later this month.
The three seasons of McLaren-Honda from 2015-2017 were some of Honda's darkest days. Things did not click and they were seen as a joke at times.
Their decision to first partner Toro Rosso (now AlphaTauri) in 2018 and then Red Bull in 2019 were the two best choices Honda have made in the turbo-hybrid era.
It would be the perfect comeback story if they could leave F1 as world champions.