Honda will look to exit Formula 1 with a bang in their final year in the sport. Throughout the turbo-hybrid era, the Mercedes engine - used by Aston Martin, Williams and McLaren - has been the gold standard in Formula 1.
However, Honda made significant gains during the offseason. The Bahrain Grand Prix is notorious for being a power-dominant track, which makes straight-line speed more important than downforce. The Japanese manufacturer has struggled at these tracks in the past, however, at the 2021 Bahrain Grand Prix, both Honda teams had strong performances. Red Bull was the fastest car on the weekend, and Pierre Gasly's AlphaTauri qualified fifth on the grid.
There is a perception in the Formula 1 paddock that Honda has significantly closed the gap to the Mercedes power unit. AlphaTauri team principal Franz Tost revealed that he agrees with this analysis:
“I must say Honda did a fantastic job in Sakura because this new power unit is much more powerful and better drivable as it was in the past. I think that Honda is really very, very close to Mercedes. And I can only say thank you to the Japanese engineers because they did a fantastic job.”
The Honda engine has improved in "every aspect": Franz Tost
When asked about the exact areas of improvement on the Honda engine, Franz Tost claimed that the power unit is better in every aspect. However, the standout upgrade was in its driveability. Speaking about the team's competitors, Tost said that he was aware of the threat from McLaren and Ferrari, but was not convinced of a clear pecking order.
Speaking about the gains made by Honda, Tost said:
"We improved in every aspect, but we must not forget our competitors as well. If you look to McLaren, they have the Mercedes power unit, they are very strong.
Speaking about a rough pecking order, Tost revealed:
"For me, currently, Red Bull, Mercedes are on the same level, maybe Red Bull is even faster. Then I see McLaren coming. And we see then what’s going on with Ferrari. But we are close to Ferrari and the rest. It’s a question of hundredths of a second. We improved but the others improved as well. The question is now who did a better job? And this I can answer at the end of the season."
However, the AlphaTauri team principal clarified that this was not an accurate reflection of the standings, and that it would take more time for a better understanding of the pecking order:
“I need two, three races to get a better picture. But it’s very tight and I think it will be the same game as last year."
AlphaTauri have received a significant boost with the much improved Honda engines. The true extent of the gap remains unclear, however, by judging their performance at a power-hungry circuit like Bahrain, it is safe to say that Honda will not be the reason Red Bull doesn't win a championship this year.