By Ollie BarstowFollow @OllieBarstowF1 on Twitter

It speaks volumes when an F1 team principal is forced to defend the decision to switch engine suppliers, much less one of the biggest manufacturers in the world... and this is even before you consider many don't exactly see it as an 'upgrade' from a year-old power unit.

Indeed, while the news Sauber will adopt Honda's - thus far - maligned V6 Hybrid power unit technology for 2018 may not have come as a surprise amongst those who follow F1 closely, it didn't stop many of them questioning the wisdom of it regardless.

Anyone fluent in the multiple languages Fernando Alonso speaks should be well versed as to exactly why...

A risk worth gambling for?

On the face of it, you can understand the trepidation amongst the Sauber faithful. A currently point-less, low budget team - relative to McLaren anyway - getting an engine that in the hands of the aforementioned McLaren is currently nowhere near to scoring points... it's not exactly an encouraging premise.

Yet, go beyond the (many) headlines of Honda's well documented struggles and there isn't just good sense in the Sauber deal, it's a win-win-win all round.

It's been a tough few years for Sauber. Relegated to the role of true minnows with the exit of the Manor, Caterham and HRT three, it came remarkably close to folding altogether in 2016 and even though a bailout by Longbow Finance keeps it afloat and arguably more solvent than it has been for some time, the blank panels on the side of the C36 nonetheless tell their own story.

A new engine deal for Sauber in 2018 was always expected when it confirmed it would be holding onto its 2016 specification Ferrari power units for this season. Officially Sauber said the unusual decision was a chance for it to focus development on the chassis, off the record it ensured a cheaper early release from its Ferrari contract.

Make no mistake, despite the timing of the announcement, the engine deal has been in the pipeline for a while and discussions at least had taken place long even before Honda fired its faltering new power unit into life for the first time. With this in mind, it goes a long way to explaining why Sauber is satisfied to use 2017 as a year of restructuring now it has a long-term vision, potentially its clearest since the BMW days.

Though a third-string Ferrari affiliate right now appears to be a more attractive prospect than a Honda partner, Sauber is at the very least taking a gamble that has the potential to pay out some rich rewards.

Current and enduring form notwithstanding, it seems unlikely Honda will be allowed to continue to struggle much longer. Don't expect to see any official confirmation but Mercedes is set to lend Honda a hand in the development of its engine, much like the German firm did with Ferrari between 2014-2015 in an attempt to bring it up to speed for the 'greater good' of the sport.

The result of this may not be seen until 2018 by which time Sauber will have had enough time to work closely with Honda to begin making plans for next season itself. Therein is the resolution to one of Honda's biggest frustrations since returning to F1 - mileage.

The Japanese firm was already a year behind in development even before it returned to track with an unreliable power unit campaigned by just a single team.

A help rather than a hindrance to McLaren

This won't just benefit Honda. While McLaren may be wondering whether it should have played 'twist' rather than stuck with Honda by now, Sauber coming on board could allow real world development to accelerate and stop those pesky 'dyno-to-track transition failures' that Honda make repeated reference to.

Whilst this should have happened with the 2017 power unit already, Honda at least has the opportunity to rip this engine apart and start again (again), only this time it will have four cars from which to scour precious data.

McLaren may have baulked at the idea of allowing another team into the Honda customer fold - even going as far to allow a veto to Ron Dennis - to ensure it retained exclusivity and priority, but it's clear there is little sense in cutting its short nose off its face just to ensure monogamy. Besides, it seems unlikely Sauber could ever match McLaren if their only parity is the engine, but fair play if they ever do...

Granted, each of the justifications above ultimately require Honda to finally get it right mechanically - something it admittedly has had several chances to do already -, but from Sauber's point of view there is an evident commercial benefit to joining forces with Honda.

Though the true cost of the power units has never been made official, it seems unlikely Sauber will be digging as deep for this engine compared with Mercedes - which was also rumoured -, Ferrari and Renault.

The deal could be more than it seems...

What could be 'deep' however is Honda's involvement with Sauber. If McLaren is wary of allowing a fellow customer use the engines specifically designed for its chassis, could the deal be designed to prove mutually beneficial from the outset?

Firstly, Honda's power unit isn't one that has been designed generically like its contemporaries - it is designed to fit with the McLaren MCL32. Does this mean Honda will design a more general power unit for both, or could McLaren be willing to allow some of its secrets head to Hinwil in much the same way Ferrari and Haas or even Red Bull and Toro Rosso are related?

At the very least many are tipping it to become rung on the F1 ladder for Honda's burgeoning motorsport programme, though this could potentially extend out into McLaren's as well. Provided he has a strong year in Formula 2, race winner Nobuharu Matsushita would be in the right place at the right time for a promotion, but it could spell future good news for the likes of Nyck de Vries and Britain's own Lando Norris.

Following McLaren's Ron Dennis-engineered era of precision, intricacy and privacy (and maybe just a bit of espionage), the bolder, more open and inventive early days of the Zak Brown-era seem more in line with prospect of collaborating with an effective 'B team'.

Or, at the other end of the scale, it gives Honda the contingency to continue in F1 should those McLaren-Mercedes rumours come to fruition, though Yusuke Hasegawa has emphasised its new Milton Keynes facility is being prepared to serve two teams.

None of this will become apparent for some time yet but just as easily as Honda could emerge with a disappointing power unit in 2018, it could also find its way.

After all, imagine if Sauber has negotiated a cheap deal based on 2017's disappointing power unit and ends up with a competitive engine for 2018?



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