CONSTRUCTORS: HONDA RACING F1

Name: Honda Racing F1

Rubens Barrichello, Australian GP 2008

Rubens Barrichello, Australian GP 2008 

 © The Cahier Archive

In 2005 Honda bought out its partner (British American Tobacco) in the BAR F1 team and transformed the team into an Honda Racing F1. The team went into 2006 with Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello.

The move was the latest F1 adventure for Honda, a company with a sporting tradition that goes back to the 1930s when company founder Soichiro Honda was an enthusiastic car racer in his youth and was a great believer in using sport to develop and market his products. He used the philosophy with Honda motorcycles and adopted the same principle when the company began building cars in the early 1960s. The first Honda cars were small sportscars designed for the US market and Honda concluded that a Formula 1 project would be a good idea. By the summer of 1963 a prototype engine was running on the test beds in Japan. Honda had wanted to use European-built chassis and did a deal with Lotus but the team pulled out of the deal at the last moment - because the Coventry Climax company was taken over by Jaguar and Lotus had links with Jaguar - and Honda was left to build its own cars as well.

Honda's choice of driver was a source of incredulity in Formula 1 circles. The company had tried to hire the 1961 World Champion Phil Hill but he was not available and so it was decided that it would be best to find an unknown so that the driver would not get the credit for any success - and, it should be added, could be blamed for any failure. Honda North America was asked to supply names of young drivers with potential and they came up with 10. Ronnie Bucknum - a little-known driver of MGBs in America - was the man chosen. The car was unveiled at Zandvoort in July and made its debut 10 days later at the German GP at the old Nurburgring, Bucknum starting at the back of the grid. The major talking point was not that Honda had arrived but that the team had turned up without an oil trap fitted in the engine. They were compulsory and so the Honda engineers improvised, modifying a Coca-Cola tin to do the job... In the race Bucknum went out with a steering failure which resulted in a sizable accident from which the driver emerged needing four stitches. With only one car in Europe, Honda had to miss the Austrian GP. It was, at best, an inauspicious start. The car reappeared on several occasions in 1964 but scored no results.

For 1965 Honda hired another American to partner Bucknum. Richie Ginther was a little better known in F1 circles. He had never won a Grand Prix but had finished second on eight different occasions during his years with Ferrari and BRM. Perhaps he wasn't the fastest but he was a good development driver and that was exactly what Honda needed. During the winter Bucknum suffered another steering failure and crashed at high speed, breaking his leg badly but as 1965 developed so the cars became more quicker and more reliable. Ginther finished sixth at Spa to score Honda's first World Championship point and led the race at Silverstone. Towards the end of the year there was a new engine and in Mexico City - the last race of the 1.5-liter formula - Ginther won and Bucknum finished fifth. It was a great triumph but the reality was that it was too late. A new 3-liter formula would begin in 1966 and Honda would have to start all over again.

Honda decided to adapt its Formula 2 engine for the new formula but the new RA273 did not appear until the Italian GP in the autumn of 1966. The car was powerful but very heavy. On its debut Ginther suffered a tire failure and crashed, breaking his collar bone. He recovered and ended the year with a fourth place in Mexico.

At the end of the year both Ginther and Bucknum left the team. Honda signed up John Surtees and he spent most of the 1967 season developing the RA273. It was not good enough and in the midseason Honda decided to ask Lola to design a new chassis to go with the engine. The project was completed in just six weeks and Surtees gave the RA300 a remarkable debut victory at Monza in September.

The RA300 saw out the rest of the 1967 season but for the following year Honda prepared a new engine and as a result the RA301 was well over the weight limit. Surtees preferred to use the older engine.

Soichiro Honda had by now become obsessed with the idea of an air-cooled F1 engine and as a result the RA302 was produced in the summer of 1968. It was unlike any other F1 car. Built of magnesium - to reduce weight - it was tested by Surtees at Silverstone. He said it was not ready to race but Honda wanted to push ahead and so the car was given to French veteran Jo Schlesser for the French GP at Rouen. In the famous fast sweepers going downhill at Rouen Schlesser lost control of the car. It hit a bank, overturned and caught fire. Schlesser was killed.

The accident marked the end of Honda's first F1 adventure. The team went on until the end of the season but then Honda pulled out of Grand Prix racing. It had been decided that it was better to concentrate on production cars.

Honda returned to F1 as engine supplier in the 1980s with enormous success with Williams and McLaren and then withdrew in 1992. In 1999 the company began to put together a factory team under Harvey Postlethwaite but this was aborted when Honda decided to supply engines to BAR.

The team struggled to get any really good results but a change of management led to the team moving up the F1 ladder in 2004. Honda then acquired a shareholding in the team with the aim of taking full control in the longer-term. The 2005 season was not a success and at the end of the year Honda decided to take full control of its own destiny and bought out BAT.

The newly-named Honda Racing F1 team, under the direction of Nick Fry, started 2006 in a rather less than competitive state but new blood in the engineering department made the car increasingly competitive and in Hungary Jenson Button gave Honda its first win since the 1960s.

But the 2007 car was unimpressive - apart from its unusual "green" environmental livery - and was a big disappointment for drivers of the calibre of Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello.

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