Features - News Feature

AUGUST 1, 1996

Yamaha's Formula 1 struggle


No matter how one looks at it, Yamaha's Formula 1 involvement since 1989 has been a disaster - in terms of results. The first season was so bad that the West Zakspeed team qualified only twice in the 16 races. At the end of the year West withdrew, Zakspeed went out of business and Yamaha found itself out of F1 for the duration of the 1990 season. The engine programme was completely reorganized under new project leader Takaaki Kimura and a new V12 - the OX99 - was planned for 1991. A new alliance was formed with Brabham. Testing of a Brabham-Yamaha BT58Y - using OX88 engines - began in July 1990.

No matter how one looks at it, Yamaha's Formula 1 involvement since 1989 has been a disaster - in terms of results. The first season was so bad that the West Zakspeed team qualified only twice in the 16 races. At the end of the year West withdrew, Zakspeed went out of business and Yamaha found itself out of F1 for the duration of the 1990 season. The engine programme was completely reorganized under new project leader Takaaki Kimura and a new V12 - the OX99 - was planned for 1991. A new alliance was formed with Brabham. Testing of a Brabham-Yamaha BT58Y - using OX88 engines - began in July 1990.

The Brabham-Yamaha BT59 was a sensible package and drivers Martin Brundle and Mark Blundell did well. Blundell scored Yamaha's first F1 point at the Belgian GP and Brundle added two more in Japan. Brabham's financial troubles, however, meant that Yamaha had to switch the OX99 supply to Sasol Jordan for 1992. Mauricio Gugelmin and Stefano Modena struggled with the Jordan-Yamaha 192 - it was becoming clear that the V10 was a better choice than the V12 - and it was not until the final race of the year in Australia that Modena scored a point. By then Jordan had signed a deal for 1993 with Brian Hart.

The year with Jordan was a great disappointment but, in an effort to improve performance, Jordan put Yamaha in touch with John Judd's Engine Developments company. An agreement was signed between the two. John Judd had designed a V10 in 1990 and it had been raced by Scuderia Italia in 1991 and by Brabham in 1992, but neither team had the money to develop the engines properly.

Judd was, therefore, delighted to pool his resources with those of Yamaha and Yamaha was happy to find someone with two seasons of racing experience with V10 engines.

The new Yamaha OX10A V10 engine was virtually identical in specification to the Judd GV - with the same v-angle, the same width and length and a difference of only 3mm in height. Not surprisingly F1 observers reckoned that the new Yamaha was a Judd with different engine covers.

Having been ditched by Jordan, Yamaha found a new partner in Tyrrell and for 1993, 1994 and 1995 the Tyrrell-Yamaha combination has raced derivatives of the original OX10A engine with Ukyo Katayama (driving for all three seasons), Andrea de Cesaris in 1993, Mark Blundell in 1994 and Mika Salo in 1995. The team scored no points in 1993 but collected 13 the following year with Blundell giving Yamaha its first podium finish - third place - in Spain. In September 1994 Yamaha announced a further two-year deal with Tyrrell to cover the 1995 and 1996 seasons.

The Yamaha engineers did a good job down-sizing the 3.5-litre OX10B to produce the 3-litre OX10C - as demanded by the FIA rule changes - but the Tyrrell 023 chassis was not a good car although it was reliable and finished races, allowing Salo to collect five points towards the end of the year.

Yamaha's total of World Championship points in the seven years in F1 had amounted to a less than magnificent 22 points. To put that into perspective, when Peugeot entered F1 with McLaren in 1994 the partnership scored 42 points in its first season - and was still considered to have been a disaster. And comparing Yamaha and Renault statistics makes astounding reading: in the same period Yamaha has scored 22 points, Renault has collected 821.

"Yamaha has been enormously successful in motorcycle racing," people in F1 say, "why the hell can't they do it in Formula 1?"

Looking at Yamaha's motorcycle racing statistics does make impressive reading. Since 1955 the company has won 41 World Manufacturer's titles. It won its first World Championship in 1964 - just three years after it broke into international racing. In the 1970s Yamaha was dominant, scoring a string of Championships with Kenny Roberts (1978-79-80), Eddie Lawson (1984-86-88-89) and Wayne Rainey (1990-91-92) in 500cc racing with similar success in 350cc, 250cc and 125cc competition. The sporting success helped to propel Yamaha's original motorcycle team manager Takehiko Hasegawa to the presidency of Yamaha Motors.

What no-one in Formula 1 understands is why Yamaha continues its F1 programme when faced with failure after failure. It has been suggested that Yamaha is only in F1 to keep an eye on the sport for Toyota - which is one of Yamaha Motors major clients. This is denied vehemently by Yamaha personnel. Yamaha, they say, is in F1 because the sport provides valuable research & development into new technologies.

A Yamaha company brochure lays out the company philosophy."Yamaha places great value in the single-minded pursuit of excellence in all racing disciplines," it says. "The ultimate goal may be victory but at Yamaha we don't believe winning is everything and take great pride in simply taking part". The brochure goes on to say that Yamaha is aiming to "dedicate ourselves to the task of building things which will create the future".

The constant quest for new technology and the implementation of the knowledge gained is a doctrine enshrined in Yamaha company history, dating way back to the Yamaha Organ Manufacturing Company, established in 1889 by watchmaker Torakusu Yamaha. Initially the company built reed organs but then moved into pianos and, having developed skills in woodworking, began producing wooden propellers for aircraft.

Genichi Kawakami, whose father managed Yamaha from 1927, took control of the company in 1950 and diversified into motorcycle production in 1954. Yamaha Motor, a separate but affiliated company, was founded in 1955. From the start competition of all forms was at the core of Yamaha Motor's corporate philosophy.

"We compete at the pinnacle of many top line sports such as Round the World Yachting, Grand Prix motorcycling, rally raids, snowmobiling and powerboat racing together with rugby and football," says president Takehiko Hasegawa. "All these, plus our grass roots policy of supporting karting and out commitment to F1 form the basis of what we know as Yamaha World and the Yamaha World of Competition. Together they show our company heritage: that racing is inherent in our company worldwide and is part of our company philosophy.

"We believe our work ethic towards excellence should be rewarded by enjoyment and fulfillment to people all over the world. As F1 is one of the most popular sports in the world we attach significant importance to it.

"Our prime objective through Yamaha Formula 1 is to acquire technical knowledge which can be fed back to our automotive products in order to improve the breed. Since our inception Yamaha Automotive has been a producer of automobile engines and various components for a variety of major manufacturers and, undoubtedly, our commitment to research and development has cemented these relationships. We must therefore continue to invest through the learning curve and one high tech area is, undisputably, F1."

This philosophy was behind Yamaha's decision in 1995 to build the OX11A - the smallest and lightest F1 engine ever built. At the launch of this year's car Tyrrell's Dr Harvey Postlethwaite described the OX11A as "a gem of an engine, a piece of pure uncompromised design, far ahead of the old engine."

It was, according to Yamaha press releases at the time, a unit which made "full use of all the data and know-how accumulated by Yamaha in our seven years of F1 participation and the technology and experience we have gained in actual competition with our V8, V12 and V10 engines during that period."

Initial testing was very promising with good lap times and reliable running and Tyrrell headed off to Australia with high expectations. In Melbourne Mika Salo finished sixth. In Brazil he was fifth. It became clear that the Tyrrell-Yamaha was fast but needed to qualify better in order to avoid being stuck behind cars which were faster in qualifying but slower in the races. At San Marino Salo qualified eighth and ran fifth in the race until his engine blew.

"It's a pity," he said, "we would have been on the podium."

In fact it was the start of a series of failures which have blighted the team's progress. In total, according to inside sources, nearly 50 Yamaha engines have blown up this season. The cars have slipped slowly down the grid and development has stopped. At Hockenheim the Tyrrell engineers, exasperated by the lack of horsepower, decided to run the cars in qualifying using four front tyres - to reduce drag. The message was that Yamaha did not have enough horsepower.

But how and why has Yamaha slipped back so badly? How can an engine be competitive and reliable at the start of a year and off-the-pace and fragile by mid-season?

"We had a lucky start to the year," reckons Kimura. "We managed to finish in the first two races when everything was new for everybody. That helped us."

But this is not the full story. The Yamaha engine features unique technology - which Yamaha does not wish to reveal. This has not yet been entirely mastered. Yamaha engineers are the pioneers and they are suffering for it. When the engine failures began the Yamaha men found themselves flat-out, trying to trace the reliability problems. That meant that development work on the engines was compromised.

There is, however, more to it than luck. Under pressure Mr Kimura will admit that "one of the major problems" has been with the casting of the engine blocks. The blocks were fine when they first appeared but after being rebuilt had the tendency to blow up. This would appear to be a problem of advanced materials degrading with use. The team does not have the time nor the money to produce new block after new block. Different casting techniques were tried and now Kimura reckons that the problem is solved. There have, however, also been major difficulties with bearings.

A strange feature of the Yamaha failures is that they have occurred in practice more often than in the races. Kimura says that this is possibly because of the stop-go nature of practice where drivers complete only a few laps at a time. The engine gets hot, cools down, gets hot, cools down and so on. In the races temperatures go up but then tend to stay at the same level.

According to Yamaha's F1 business manager Yoshiaki Takeda Yamaha's failures are not a question of budget. There simply is not the time to do all the work that needs to be done.

"Yamaha has a different intention to other manufacturers in F1," says Takeda. "F1 is the company's showcase. Yamaha Automotive has important client deals with Toyota, Ford of America and Ford Europe to build production engines. F1 is the best value for money in R&D terms. We are facing the technical challenge, and we believe that we can make the next step. Sometimes the company has to shut its eyes and ears to the negative publicity. All I can tell you is that in three years time we will show you things when they are fed into the production engines."

Yamaha's intention, therefore, is to continue in F1. The only problem facing Yamaha is that there may not be a team out there interested in struggling along helping Yamaha research new automotive technology. Racing teams need to make progress to survive. Tyrrell cannot run without sponsorship and cannot get sponsorship without results.

Yamaha engines are free and for struggling F1 teams they are very attractive. In 1992, for example, there is no question that Eddie Jordan had no choice but to find a free engine deal - because he had been unable to pay his 1991 bills to Cosworth and could not afford another year with the same engines - he went to Yamaha. There come a point at which free engines are not enough. Tyrrell might like having free engines but they need good performance as well. This would explain why there were talks recently between Tyrrell and Mugen Honda.

One can accuse Yamaha of being naive in their understanding of F1 politics. Switching from team to team is never a good idea and there are always teams who are willing to take something for nothing in order to survive. The arrival of Herbie Blash at Yamaha in 1992 gave the company a man who understood F1 politics very well. He orchestrated the deal with Tyrrell and the stability which followed. The decision to ally with Judd was a sensible one and the good showing in 1994 was the result. Tyrrell engineers will admit grudgingly that in 1995 the failure was not Yamaha's fault. They were fiddling about with the Hydrolink suspension system and did not concentrate enough on the basic engineering of the car.

Yamaha has to face the fact that this year, the planned technical leap forward has backfired. They can only hope that the engineers will use the knowledge gained with the OX11A to make a competitive OX11B. The Yamaha men think they are close to a breakthrough.

The rest of F1 is rather sceptical..