OCTOBER 30, 2000

Mugen and Honda - a strained relationship

THERE have been times in the recent history of Formula 1 when one would have been would forgiven for thinking that Mugen was a subsidiary of the Honda Motor Company but as Mugen's founder Hirotoshi Honda is now discovering this is not the case at all.

THERE have been times in the recent history of Formula 1 when one would have been would forgiven for thinking that Mugen was a subsidiary of the Honda Motor Company but as Mugen's founder Hirotoshi Honda is now discovering this is not the case at all.

Hirotoshi Honda grew up watching his father building up the Honda Motor Company. He was six when the business was established and in his late teens when the company first made its international mark by winning the Isle of Man TT motorcycle races. Hirotoshi studied industrial design and after he graduated in the mid-1960s he began to tinker with competition machinery in the garage at his home. In a western country, the younger Honda would have been given a role in the company but Soichiro Honda and his partner Takeo Fujisawa had a most unusual philosophy and banned their sons from working at Honda.

"No matter how outstanding the founder of a company may be," he said, "there is no guarantee that his son is equally capable. The corporate presidency must be handed over to a person possessing the most distinguished qualities of leadership."

When they retired from the company in 1973 both Honda and Fujisawa disclaimed ownership of the company. They were wealthy men and felt that their families could survive without having to be involved in the business.

That same year Hirotoshi Honda established Mugen - the name is Japanese for "unlimited". His aim was to develop Honda machinery for competition purposes. In order to achieve this he recruited Masao Kimura, a Honda company veteran with a successful racing career behind him. They began by tuning Honda engines and gradually expanded into motocross, motorcycle racing and then supplying engines in various racing championships. The company worked closely with Honda throughout. In addition to the competition activities Mugen produced a range of high performance parts for Honda cars, including exhausts, spoilers and wheels.

The Mugen company was first involved in Formula 1 in 1991, preparing Honda RA-101E V10 engines for Tyrrell. These engines were handed over to Mugen in 1992 when Honda decided to develop the RA122E/B V12 engine instead and they became known as Mugen MF351Hs. At the end of 1992 Honda withdrew from F1. The company sold some of its V12 data to Ferrari but continued the arrangement with Mugen, initially with the Footwork team but then in 1994 with Team Lotus. At the time the team admitted that the engines were "an evolution of the Honda power unit which won the F1 World Championships in 1989 and 1990" but said privately that Honda engineers were closely involved in the development programs. The change in the F1 regulations to three-liters in 1995 resulted in the MF301H and that unit has been under development ever since and was raced this year by Jordan Grand Prix.

In 2000, however, Honda Motor came back to Formula 1 in its own right. A completely new V10 was built, incorporating many of the lessons learned with the Mugen engines. Mugen found itself battling with its big brother. The Honda management made it clear that there was no room in F1 for Mugen in 2001 and, to tidy up the details, Honda agreed to supply its engines to Jordan as well as British American Racing.

Hirotoshi Honda is not happy but there is not much he can do about it. His father died in 1991 and the old man's influence within Honda has gradually waned as a new generation of managers have risen to the top of the company. Nobuhiko Kawamoto, the last of the racers to run the company, was ousted in the middle of 1998, leaving the company in the hands of corporate managers. The racers had always tolerated Mugen because it served a purpose but with Honda committed to an all-out F1 program of its own, Mugen can only get in the way. It does not have the capability or the money necessary to design and build its own engines and the only real option is for Hirotoshi Honda to try to find an engine from somewhere else. The obvious move would be for Hirotoshi Honda to buy into Asia Motor Technologies.

The problem is that AMT appears to be on a different agenda and while the company may be happy to sell an engine supply to Mugen in the short term, it appears to have long term ideas of doings its own engine although this will require the support of a car manufacturer and it is hard to see which one is going to become involved. The only logical choice is Malaysia's Proton, which is now controlled by the oil company Petronas. The long term aim of the Malaysian government is to use Formula 1 to showcase the country's high technology and so the long-term possibilities for Mugen with AMT would seem to be limited.

Similarly it is hard to imagine that any deal could be struck with Toyota as the company is committed to entering F1 with its own team and the other Japanese car manufacturers have now all fallen under the control of the big global players in the car industry.

Which means that Hirotoshi Honda is struggling to stay in Formula 1...