Features - News Feature
FEBRUARY 22, 1999
The truth about Honda's Formula 1 project
BY JOE SAWARD
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 Mug