Towards Suzuka: Will Honda give Toro Rosso the F1 power to fend off Sauber?

With the Japanese Grand Prix weekend taking place just a matter of days after the Russian Grand Prix, Toro Rosso sacrificed the event in Sochi – or at least their grid slots – in order to assess power unit upgrades to maximise its performance at its home Grand Prix.

Toro Rosso used the Friday of the Russian Grand Prix to trial a heavily-upgraded internal combustion engine element of the power unit, whilst the remaining elements also underwent some optimisation.

Despite the positive signs, they ran older-spec power units for the rest of the weekend in order to preserve and further assess the upgrades ahead of Honda’s home race in Japan.

The upgrades are rumoured to be worth around half-a-second per lap, which would represent a huge leap in performance in the hard-fought midfield contest. And they need it, as a free scoring Charles Leclerc in the Sauber is now pushing the Swiss team to challenge them for valuable positions in the constructors’ championship table. There are just three points separating the two teams in the scrap for eighth place.

As a result of the upgrades, Toro Rosso team principal Franz Tost claimed that Honda were now ahead of Renault in outright performance:

“Honda is making big steps forward,” Tost told “[In Friday practice] we had the new spec in the car and it was really fantastic.

“It is in front of Renault. [The] complete package.”

However, Honda will have a race against time to complete analysis work at the factory before their home race, as the upgrades are believed to have been suffering from higher-than-desired oscillations, in relation to the power units frequency against the chassis.

“Having studied all available PU data after FP2, we realised that, although the performance was encouraging, there is still some work to do in some areas such as calibration and matching the PU to the chassis,” said Honda F1’s Toyoharu Tanabe.

“We believe we can complete the work before the Japanese GP, so that we can run the new specification PUs on both cars from then on.”

The updates could arrive just in time for Toro Rosso; they currently hold on to eighth place in the constructors’ championship, but their lead over Sauber has reduced to just three points. The difference in prize money between eighth and ninth place will be worth achieving for two of the smaller teams on the grid.

Charles Leclerc continues to take the majority of Sauber’s points in 2018, and at the Sochi Autodrom he took his second consecutive top ten finish, capitalising on Toro Rosso’s double-DNF.

Whilst Honda and Toro Rosso are still pushing on with power unit development, Sauber could profit from the reliability advantage that the Ferrari PUs have had over Honda in 2018. Sauber’s opportunities may come from having fewer grid penalties in the remaining races of the season, which could be useful in a current formula where large pace differentials are needed to overtake a rival.

Honda made the switch from McLaren to Toro Rosso for the start of this season and, after less than one season at Toro Rosso, Red Bull were convinced enough to ditch Renault and take a chance on the Honda power units from next season. As a result, they have openly encouraged Honda to use Toro Rosso as test cars for next season.

By: Luke Murphy & James Allen

All images: Motorsport Images

Who do you think will finish ahead between Toro Rosso and Sauber? Have your thoughts on Red Bull’s decision to switch to Honda power units changed over the year? Leave your thoughts in the section below.