12 March 2018

2018 is a year of change for Honda in Formula 1. A new season kicked off with pre-season testing at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, and with it came new surroundings.

The end of the McLaren partnership and beginning of a new era with Toro Rosso has been well-publicised, but there has also been a significant restructuring of the Honda F1 operation that has coincided with the new team colours.


Former Head of F1 Project and Chief Engineer Yusuke Hasegawa has transferred to future technology development for mass production, but his replacement is not a direct one. Two new roles have been created, with Yasuaki Asaki appointed the operating officer in charge of HRD Sakura - where he will oversee research and development - while Toyoharu Tanabe has assumed the newly created role of F1 Technical Director.

"In the past, the Head of F1 Project assumed responsibility in both technological development and directing the team at the spot of racing," said Katsuhide Moriyama, Honda Motor Co.'s Chief Officer for Brand and Communication Operations. "By separating these areas of responsibility, we will evolve our structure so that both the development team and racing/testing team can assume their respective responsibilities more speedily.”

In Barcelona, Tanabe - who has worked in the motorsport division since the early 1990s - has been settling into new surroundings after joining from the IndyCar project. Not only is the role new for him, it also marks a shift in the way the overall Toro Rosso Honda team is structured.

Over the past three years, McLaren racing director Eric Boullier and our respective Head of F1 Project have worked side-by-side to lead the team. In partnering with Toro Rosso, the position of Franz Tost as team principal allows Tanabe to more closely mirror the position of Toro Rosso technical director James Key, taking direct involvement in the power unit operation trackside.

“I’m more hands-on at the circuit,” Tanabe explains. “I think in order to improve the performance, the development team on the Sakura side need accurate and precise information from trackside. That’s a priority. So we supply them with the information, they can react quickly and in a proper way to identify priorities.

Some of the areas in F1 are the same as a long time ago, but then the engine has changed to a power unit so many areas have been changed recently. As I am just starting, I have started to learn when I am here. We also joined Toro Rosso this year, which is new to us. Not just to me, but to all of us. So nobody could tell me ‘this is the Toro Rosso way’, and we needed to find out every day how to manage and organise the trackside operation.”

At Sakura, Asaki’s influence has already been felt. Brought in after successfully overseeing restructuring of other Honda projects, he has been streamlining development directions over the winter. Masashi Yamamoto, the General Manager of Honda’s motorsport division, believes the two additions at the top of the new structure complement each other.

“Tanabe was in F1 during past eras of our challenge, and recently he was leading the IndyCar project, so naturally he has a lot of experience in trackside operations,” Yamamoto says. “His style of management is to go inside of the engineering room and collect the information and make decisions, rather than waiting the information to be reported to him outside. Therefore he is able to show his leadership in very close cooperation both with Toro Rosso and our engineers.

Asaki is a leader who has led some suffering projects among Honda to huge success in the past. He can always make the right decisions in terms of priorities - working out what is good and removing what is bad.”

“In Sakura already, he starting by lining up all the ongoing developments in one place, and then made a decision about which one to focus on, abandoning the others. As a result, now we are putting more resources into one project which enables the development to proceed quicker.”

The new structure is a significant change. Such a different style of management means even grabbing 10 minutes to speak to Tanabe in Barcelona is tough as the F1 Technical Director is so keen to swap the Toro Rosso hospitality unit for the back of the team’s engineering trucks just 100 yards down the paddock.

To make the change at the start of a new partnership has its pros and cons, with the reorganisation being a natural evolution rather than a direct response to the change of team in F1.

“It’s good and bad,” Tanabe says. “If we want to change something big from the way of doing things over the past three years, maybe it takes some time to change because we have some inertia to continue that type of thing. But when you are new, we can discuss closely what is the best thing to do - we think this is the best, they think this is the best - so I think we can help agree the way.

“So we have discussed it a lot since we have started to work together with Toro Rosso. Of course we have to update every day - every day - to improve our efficiency. At the moment I believe we are working very closely and there’s no problems.”


A productive pre-season testing campaign saw the new partnership complete 822 laps, but fuel loads, tyre compounds and power unit settings all serve to cloud the picture relating to competitiveness. That will only be seen for the first time in Australia.

“I believe that all the staff working on the Toro Rosso Honda project have a passion. So we are all trying to get to know each other. We are waiting to see the position in Melbourne. Position doesn’t just mean the finishing position, but we will see what we have done during the off-season. For all the people working with passion, it’s a case of seeing the results of their work.”

For Tanabe, the level of improvement during this year is of greater importance than the starting point, but the excitement that comes before the opening race will be impossible to ignore.

“Improvement is very important, for the relationship and also for performance. We will work together very hard.

“When we finished the test, basically I felt comfortable with the way we’ve carried out our work. But I think I will be another step towards nervous for the first race. That’s when we will really prove things. Racing is what matters. We have done testing but the tests are not a race season.

“We needed to prepare for the first test, then later for the races, and that’s when the mindset has been switched to the first race. It has been a good start but there is a long way to go and we still need to improve. There are 21 races ahead of us and it is a long year.”