NEWS FEATURE

Honda on the way back to F1

The Honda Motor Company is expected to announced on March 28 at the Twin Ring Motegi CART race in Japan that it is about to launch a major Grand Prix campaign which will be ready in time for the 1999 season. Although it is yet to be officially confirmed we believe that Honda has settled on a two-pronged attack with a supply of V10 engines for British American Racing and for a completely new Honda F1 team, which will build its own cars in Japan and will be run by former Grand Prix driver Satoru Nakajima.

We believe that the driver line-up for the two teams will include Jacques Villeneuve and Toranosuke Takagi in the Honda-Hondas and CART champion Alex Zanardi driving for British American Racing alongside Frenchman Jean-Christophe Boullion.

While the idea of a new team building a completely new team from nothing in the space of a few months may seem a ludicrous idea we understand that Honda has been working quietly on chassis building at the Honda R&D centre in Wako, while Mugen has been developing the Honda V10 engine. Everyone denies a direct Honda involvement in the Mugen F1 programme but there are a lot of Honda engineers working with Mugen. This has been a clever way for Honda to keep an idea of the developing technologies in F1.

Honda's return to F1 will come as no surprise because the philosophy of progress through competition is part of the company's corporate culture. Honda has always been run by racers and its President Nobuhiko Kawamoto remains convinced that motor racing is good for training engineers, for nurturing innovation and for motivating the company. The decision to supply BAR as well is a good way for the company to hedge its bets in case there are problems with the Honda-Honda.

It should be remembered however that BAR's managing-director Craig Pollock has very strong Honda connections, having worked in Europe for the Interhoba Group before he began to work as Jacques Villeneuve's manager. Interhoba was owned by a friend of the late Soichiro Honda and looked after many of Honda's interests around Europe.

There are also strong Honda links with Reynard Racing Cars, the two companies working together with great success in the United States, notably with Target Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Kool Green.

Honda pulled out of Formula 1 at the end of 1992 blaming the economic recession for the decision. In fact it suited the company to withdraw because it had dominated Grand Prix racing to such an extent that there was little to be gained from continuing. Victory was expected following six consecutive Constructors' Championships and five Drivers' titles for Nelson Piquet (1987), Ayrton Senna (1988-90-91) and Alain Prost (1989). The McLaren-Honda partnership between 1988 and 1992 resulted in 41 wins in 74 starts and the magnificent 15 out of 16 victories in the 1988 World Championship, a record that is unlikely to be beaten.

No sooner had Honda quit F1 than a secret Honda-Honda F1 car was spotted being tested at the Tochigi circuit in Japan in February 1993. The company said the car had been put together by Honda engineers in their spare time. Eleven months later a car called the RC101B was given a run at Suzuka, with Satoru Nakajima driving. Honda admitted at the time that the RC100 and RC101 have been built but had both been destroyed in crash-testing. After 1994 nothing was heard to the project and it was assumed that Honda had decided that entering F1 with its own team was too risky.

The initial Honda F1 effort in the 1960s - on which Kawamoto worked - was not a great success with the team using Lola-built cars after its own failed to be competitive. Honda seems to have learned from its mistakes and seems to have been testing considerably with its own chassis. We hear that a new Honda-Honda was built last year for some quiet testing. We understand that there were some problems with composite delamination.

At the end of 1995 an unnamed Honda official in Tokyo admitted that the company would probably start "a discussion over getting back into F1 racing" during 1996. At the San Marino Grand Prix that year, Yoshinobu Noguchi, project leader of the Honda Motor Sport Department, arrived in the Imola paddock.

Kawamoto said two months ago that Honda would soon decide whether it was going to return to Grand Prix racing in an official capacity in 1999.

It will be interesting to see what happens with the deal between Jordan Grand Prix and Mugen Honda which was agreed in August last year. Jordan announced that it had an exclusive deal for 1998 and 1999 but it may well be that Mugen - which is run by Hirotoshi Honda, the son of Soichiro Honda - will continue in F1 alongside the main Honda company.

Nakajima is, of course, the most obvious man to run the team. He was the first regular Grand Prix driver from Japan and remains the best-known and most-popular of all motor racing figures in Japan. He has been linked to Honda for most of his career.

Some rival team bosses in the F1 paddock doubt that Honda can simply build its own chassis in Tokyo and then arrive in F1 and expect to win without expert assistance from the motor racing industry in England.

One rumour we heard in Melbourne was that Harvey Postlethwaite and Mike Gascoyne, who have build a very promising car for Tyrrell this year, might be employed by Honda to help advise on the planned car. Such a partnership would overcome many of the doubts in the paddock as they would bring proven F1 design and production expertise and considerable experience to the project from the start. With global communication being as it now is there is no reason that building a car in Japan is any different from building one in Switzerland or in Italy.

It is virtually certain, however, that there would have to be a European base for the Honda-Honda operation, probably not far from the old Honda F1 facility at Langley in Buckinghamshire. This is close to London's Heathrow Airport and convenient for F1's "Silicon Valley" the zone in which much of the racing industry is now based.

If it is confirmed Honda's works team will be a major boost for Grand Prix racing in Japan and while it is very clearly an ambitious project although Honda believes that it is up to the task and can beat the established F1 operations with a team of its own making...

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