JANUARY 1, 1996

Honda confirms F1 plans

AS we predicted in October, the Honda Motor Company is considering a return to Grand Prix racing.

AS we predicted in October, the Honda Motor Company is considering a return to Grand Prix racing. This week in Japan a Honda spokesman admitted to a Dow Jones reporter that 1996 "may mark the start of a discussion over getting back into F1 racing".

Honda withdrew from F1 at the end of 1992, having dominated Grand Prix racing, winning the Drivers' Championship every season between 1987 and 1991. Its relationship with McLaren resulted in 41 victories in 74 races. At the end, however, there was friction between Honda and McLaren, because they were being beaten by Williams-Renault and because McLaren was planning to build its own road car - which would be in direct competition with the Honda NSX supercar. This coincided with the economic recession hitting the automobile industry, and Honda decided it had to axe the F1 program, which was rumored to be costing US$80 million a year.

Honda did, in fact, keep a small involvement via the Mugen-Honda engine program but has always claimed that Mugen is a totally independent company.

Honda president Nobuhiko Kawamoto, however, remains a great fan of progress through competition - a principle enshrined in Honda company policy from the very beginning. He quietly funded an R&D program in which Honda engineers built their own F1 chassis. This has been testing in secret in Japan for a couple of years, aiding Bridgestone in its tire development program.

It remains to be seen how Honda will return. It is unlikely to be as a simple engine supplier as before. The team has had relationships with both Williams and McLaren, and split with both in the end. The only obvious choice at the moment would be Benetton, although Ligier - which runs the Mugen-Hondas - would love the deal.

It is more likely that this time Honda will come with its own team, with this possibly growing out of the Dome F1 team, which is due to race in 1997.

There are some in F1 who feel that Honda's former F1 boss Osamu Goto, who is now Ferrari's engine research & development chief, will ultimately return to Honda to lead the program once again.