NEWS FEATURE

The truth about Honda's Formula 1 project

We know that the Honda Motor Company is aiming to enter Formula 1 in the year 2000 with its own team; a prototype Honda Formula 1 car has been testing around Europe in the last few weeks, with Jos Verstappen at the wheel; the team involves a lot of former Tyrrell employees. That is about all we know and no-one involved is going to reveal much more about Honda's F1 plans.

However, our spies have been digging out the truth about Honda Racing Developments Ltd.

There is no doubt that Honda knew a long time before its announcement in December that it was going to return to Formula 1 racing. The company's engines dominated Grand Prix racing in the late 1980s with Williams and then McLaren. At the end of 1992 Honda withdrew. There were financial problems to be solved at home in Japan and continuing in F1 served little purpose as Honda was expected to win and so the publicity generated was not as good as it could have been.

Even then it was clear that Honda was thinking about returning to Formula 1 with an entire team. It was not long after Honda's withdrawal from F1 that a Honda F1 chassis - built in Japan - made its first appearance. It was tested by Satoru Nakajima. A second chassis followed later. That project was quietly forgotten about and attention turned to Honda's project in the United States of America - one of the company's biggest markets. The adventure began in 1994 with Rahal/Hogan Racing and Comptech Racing. It is no coincidence that Honda's entry into CART racing coincided with that of Mercedes-Benz.

The intention was for Honda to be seen to be beating Mercedes-Benz. This was good not only for Honda's sales but also for its image around the world. In America Honda beat Mercedes to the CART title in 1996, 1997 and 1998.

As early as the end of 1996 Honda was beginning to consider a new Formula 1 assault. Mercedes-Benz had returned officially in 1994 with Sauber and the following season struck up a relationship with McLaren. Honda's target would be to beat the McLaren-Mercedes combination.

It was obvious that it was not going to be easy and so Honda adopted a cautious approach. What would be the best policy? Inevitably, such questions lead to the formation of factions and Honda was no different: some felt that Honda should return as an engine manufacturer; others felt that it had to build chassis but would need European help to master that technology; others believed that Honda could do it without Western help. In 1996 and 1997 the discussions continued. Mugen boss Hirotoshi Honda - who owns 40% of Honda's shares - wanted the company to support his programme and Dome wanted to be considered as well.

In the middle of last year, however, a number of Tyrrell design engineers began to disappear from Ockham. The group included all-round designer Tim Densham, chassis man Chris Radage, suspension expert Chris Cooney and aerodynamicist Ben Agethangelou. A new company called Honda Racing Developments Ltd was established with its registered office being at Dorset House in Leatherhead, Surrey. The designers were all working there. It quickly emerged that their drawings were being sent to Dallara Automobili at Varano in Italy. Aerodynamic work was being carried out in the Dallara windtunnel and a prototype car being built.

The question was whether or not the project should begin in 1999 or in the year 2000. It was a question which needed to be answered quickly. And so on the day after the German Grand Prix - August 3 - the principal players in the drama met secretly at Honda's Cricklade factory, near Swindon. The meeting lasted 11 hours and was attended by former Honda chairman Nobuhiko Kawamoto, Satoru Nakajima, Dr Harvey Postlethwaite, Giampaolo Dallara and others. Finally it was decided that the safest course of action was to aim for the year 2000. That news was then communicated to F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone who agreed to give the team an entry in the year 2000.

The Honda preparations - which would have been rather rushed if the project was to go ahead in 1999 - were now slowed a little. This was necessary because several important Honda F1 team members were still under contract to Tyrrell and could not join the Honda operation until after the final race of the season.

The departure from Tyrrell of Rupert Manwaring at the end of August marked the next important turning point for the Honda programme. Manwaring was able to get to work on finding and setting up a British factory for the team. A suitable facility was found in an industrial estate in Bracknell, Berkshire. This was discreet and only 12 miles from the Tyrrell factory in Ockham, Surrey. As many members of the Honda operation would be hired from Tyrrell - which was about to close down - this was an important consideration. The factory was not equipped to produce cars at that early stage and so Dallara agreed to build the test cars until the Bracknell operation was ready to build the cars for the 2000 season.

Although the Bracknell factory is now beginning to come together, we believe that it will only be Honda's F1 base for a limited period of time. A bigger purpose-built facility is required within a year or two which will serve the team for the long term. This is likely to be in the same area.

All these preparations were carried out in secret and even at the end of October Honda president Hiroyuki Yoshino was refusing to confirm that the company had plans to return to F1. He did however, indicate that one powerful argument in favour of such a programme was that the sport forces engineers to work quickly and make decisions. He also hinted that there have been debates within Honda about whether or not the company should go it alone in F1. He underlined that racing is an essential element in Honda's success story and that for this reason Honda ought to go it alone in F1.

At the Japanese GP itself several people were seen in the Suzuka paddock wearing "Honda F1" passes - despite the fact that the team did not officially exist. A few days later the Tyrrell team finally broke up and around 60 of the staff from Ockham joined the Honda operation. The two chassis which had been built in Italy were shipped to England and 1998-spec Mugen Honda V10 engines were fitted. These were the same engines as were being used by Jordan Grand Prix.

The car ran for the first time on December 15 at the little-known Autodromo Riccardo Paletti at Varano. The track is used for national races in Italy and is not up to F1 standard and so Jos Verstappen was forced to use only the straights to give the car two days of systems checks.

A few days later at a press conference in Tokyo Honda President Hiroyuki Yoshino confirmed that the company would enter a team in F1 in the year 2000 season and that the company planned to build the whole car and the engine.

Back in Italy the prototype was being rebuilt at Dallara and a few days later appeared at the Ferrari test facility at Mugello for its first serious test. The team then reappeared in January at Jerez and after three days of running had beaten British American Racing, Benetton and Stewart. Ten days later the all-white Honda car was at Barcelona to take part in a big test alongside most of the top teams and matched the times being set by the Jordan team. By the end of the Barcelona test the Honda F1 programme - there are two chassis at the moment - had completed a total of 3,700 miles of running.

The next step is expected shortly with the arrival of a new engine - which will be very different to the one being used at the moment by Mugen Honda.

Dallara is producing a second series of two cars have been planned to carry the new engine and these are expected to do most of the engine development work. Traditionally Honda has always tried to keep its engine programmes as secret as possible and we expect that the two new cars will be sent to Japan and will be run there in private testing. In the late 1980s Honda regularly did its engine development work at Suzuka and both Jonathan Palmer and Emanuele Pirro did many thousands of miles of running away from the glare of publicity. There have been suggestions that Formula Nippon Champion Satoshi Motoyama will do the testing but it is more likely that a more experienced F1 driver will be drafted in and the current rumours suggest that Mika Salo is a likely choice if he is dropped by the Arrows team. Salo has lived in Japan before and has plenty of experience with the old Tyrrell staff and with developing engines.

The design of the 2000 car is already underway at Bracknell. Honda had long talks with Mike Coughlan of Arrows but eventually decided not to take him and he signed a three-year deal to become technical director of Tom Walkinshaw's team. It remains to be seen who will be the chief designer of the car but it may be that Postlethwaite and Densham will fill the role between them. There are not many other obvious engineers available to do the job. The team is understood to be very enthusiastic about the Honda technology which is available in Japan - notably in terms of computational calculation and computer-modelling, areas in which many F1 are behind the motor industry.

The cars for the 2000 season will be designed and built in Bracknell and more and more Japanese engineers will become involved in the project as they learn the secrets of the manufacture and development of racing chassis.

At the moment the staff at Bracknell numbers around 100 people and recruitment is advancing slowly and British American Racing's attitude of increasing salaries has meant that people are asking rather more money than they are actually worth. Honda has a budget established for the year ahead but it does not want to waste money.

There have been rumours from Japan for some time that engineers at the Honda Research & Development Department in Wako, near Tokyo, have been working on a design study for a V12 engine for the 2000 season. Experience gained with the Mugen Honda V10 engine and the advance of F1 engine materials may well combine to enable Honda to build a V12 which is not only the same weight - or lighter - than the current V10s but which would also have a lower centre of gravity. Rival engineers reckon that a V12 could probably rev as high as 20,000rpm which would produce more horsepower than the current V10s.

Our spies say that Jordan will continue with Mugen Honda engines in 2000 but Honda will have a completely different engine programme.

The funding of the Honda F1 project appears to be in place already and our sources suggest that one of the deals is with a major oil company. Honda previously worked closely with Shell but the company is tied into Ferrari at the moment and it may be that a deal has been struck with its rival Exxon, which has always said it will not enter F1 unless the project includes a major engine manufacturer. Fuel development is not as important an element as it was in the late 1980s but there is still considerable advantage to be gained from a strong alliance with an oil company.

The choice of drivers for 2000 is also uncertain. Verstappen is obviously hoping that his test deal will lead to a fulltime drive and Honda probably has an option to continue the relationship if it chooses to do so. There will be some pressure from Japan to take a Japanese driver - the obvious candidate is Tora Takagi - but this is not certain to happen as a team in its early stages of development is better off with more experienced drivers who can help guide the team. From a promotional point of view, Honda would like to have a star name like Damon Hill. The British driver is an obvious choice as he has been working with Honda in recent years and his deal with Jordan runs out at the end of this year. Such an opportunity might be tempting for Hill before he retires.

At the moment the choice of driver is largely speculation and it remains to be seen what will happen. One thing, however, is very clear: Honda does not want anyone knowing what is going on until it reveals details of the project. To date the secrecy has been extraordinarily successful but keeping secrets is going to become more and more difficult as the 2000 season approaches...

<\#026>

Follow grandprixdotcom on Twitter
Print Feature