Features - News Feature
MAY 1, 1999
The lessons of history: Honda in Formula One
BY JOE SAWARD
It is an ambition that goes back to 1962 when Honda engineers began to push for a Grand Prix racing programme. The company had dominated the 1961 and 1962 World Motorcycling Championships and were selling millions of motorbikes. The company was just beginning to build cars. The F1 project would be a training ground for engineers but would also publicize Honda's automobile operations.
First reports of the F1 plan leaked out in the autumn of 1962. Early the following year the first engine designs were completed and by the summer of 1963 an engine was running on the test beds in Japan. It was not long before a prototype chassis appeared. The goal of the engineers involved was to build a car capable of 270kph (170mph) and so that first car was named RA270. This would never be raced but the team was soon building its successor RA271. At the same time Honda decided it would be wise to take advice from European engineers, who understood F1 chassis technology. The project leader yoshio nakamura went to Europe and visited Brabham, Cooper, Lotus and Cosworth (which was considering building chassis at the time). A deal was struck with Lotus and a dummy engine was sent to Britain in December 1963. In January 1964 the company announced its plans to enter Grand Prix racing but a month later Lotus unexpectedly informed Honda that it could not work with them because of a relationship it had with Jaguar Cars. It had to use Coventry Climax engines. The Japanese were left in the lurch.
It was too late for Brabham to build a car for 1964 - although designer Ron tauranac did begin work on a secret Honda design on a drawing board in the spare room of his house in Pyrford, Surrey, with the Honda engine sitting in his garage as a point of reference.
In the end, there was simply not enough time. Honda had no choice but to go ahead with its own chassis.
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. It was keen to get an American driver because of the importance of the United States market to the Honda company. Hill was not available. Honda thus 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 sizeable accident from which the driver emerged needing four stitches. With only 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. Ritchie 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 driver 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 the 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-litre formula - Ginther won and Bucknum finished fifth. It was a great triumph but the reality was that it was too late. A new 3-litre 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 tyre 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. Many of the Honda F1 engineers of the era went on to work on the design of the Honda Civic, one of the great modern mass -production cars.
The 1970s saw Honda's rise as a car manufacturer with the Civic appearing in 1972. The following year Soichiro Honda retired and Kiyoshi Kawashima became President of the company. In 1976 the Honda Accord followed and in 1978 came the Prelude. These models established the company as a force in the world's car markets and in 1977 Kawashima quietly gave the go-ahead for new racing activities.
After the problems with the chassis in the 1960s, it was decided that this time Honda would be only an engine supplier. F1 chassis technology was not relevant to production cars. The programme began with a Formula 2 engine which Honda supplied to Ron Tauranac's Ralt organization. The engines were to be serviced in Britain by Engine Developments, a company jointly owned by John Judd and Jack Brabham - an old friend of Honda. The engine was developed in 1980 and in 1981 Geoff Lees won the European F2 title in a Ralt-Honda. The following year was not as successful. Ralt was busy producing customer Formula 3 cars and so Honda expanded the supply to a new organization called Spirit, founded by former March men Gordon Coppuck and John Wickham. Ralt had no desire to go to F1 but Spirit was ambitious.
In Japan Honda engineers had already built the first turbocharged F1 prototypes and by August 1982 Spirit was sent a dummy F1 engine. The first Honda engine ran in a Spirit F2 chassis in November that year. An F1 car was built for 1983 but by then Spirit knew that Honda was close to a deal with Williams for 1984.
The Spirit-Honda was driven by Stefan Johansson and the emphasis was very definitely on engine development. There were no startling results. As expected the Williams-Honda deal was agreed and announced at the German GP and by the autumnn Williams was running a car with a Honda engine and the team debuted the Honda at the South African GP at the end of the year.
The 1984 season was a difficult time with a series of engine failures but in Dallas in July - in debilitating heat - Keke Rosberg survived to win as others suffered failures or crashed. It was Honda's first turbocharged victory - and the first of many which would follow. No-one expected it, not even the bosses at Honda and it was not repeated that year.
But the learning process was coming to an end. Honda was throwing more resources and more people at the project and the results improved. At Silverstone Rosberg produced an extraordinary qualifying lap to take pole position at an average speed of 160.925mhp. At the end of the year the Williams-Hondas won the last three races: two wins for Nigel Mansell and the third for Rosberg.
The 1986 season would belong to Williams and Honda with Mansell and Piquet winning nine times. The team won the Constructors' title but Alain Prost was able to sneak through to win the Drivers' title in a thrilling showdown race in Adelaide. It also resulted in the announcement that Honda would supply its engines to Lotus in 1987, in order to have Ayrton Senna driving one of its cars. Lotus was willing to give the second seat to Honda protege Satoru Nakajima.
The 1987 season was once again a battle between the two Williams drivers but the Williams-Honda relationship was becoming strained. At Silverstone British crowds thrilled to the sight of Mansell sweeping imperiously past Piquet in the closing laps but in the paddock Honda was not happy. They wanted to have more control over the team and have Mansell play a supporting role to Piquet to ensure that the title went to Honda. Frank Williams was not going to be bullied. It was his team. At Monza it was announced that Honda would be joining McLaren in 1988. Senna would be Prost's team-mate and Piquet would transferring to Lotus-Honda alongside Nakajima. Piquet won the title.
But the Williams-Honda domination was nothing compared to what was coming. In 1988 McLaren's Prost and Senna blitzed the opposition - winning 15 of 16 races in their McLaren-Hondas. The only failure to win came at Monza where Senna was headed for victory when he stumbled upon the Williams of Grand Prix debutant Jean-Louis Schlesser, nephew of Jo Schlesser. There was a misunderstanding and Senna went off. Honda's clean sweep of the World Championship was ruined . Senna won the title. The following year the two drivers fell out but the McLaren-Honda combination continued to dominated, winning 10 victories. A frustrated Prost rammed Senna off the track to win the title. He left the team at the end of the year.
In 1990 Senna won as he pleased and he did the same in 1991 and the McLaren-Honda relationship continued until the end of 1992 when Honda announced unexpectedly that it was pulling out of F1 once again. The job had been done. It was time to concentrate on the important business of selling cars.
But, in the minds of the engineers at Honda, the job has not really been done. Honda has yet to win the World Championship with its own chassis. That was the intention when the company announced it was returning to F1 in 2000.
The announcement that Honda has decided to supply its engines to British American Racing for the next three years is a curious one. Honda is going back to fight battles which it has already won. Who knows what will happen in the longer-term? Perhaps written into the contracts are options for Honda to buy the team - and so achieve the goal which Soichiro Honda set the company back in the autumn of 1962...