MAY 23, 2001

Why is Honda struggling?

ONE of the least impressive showings in Formula 1 this year has been the performance of the Honda V10 engine.

ONE of the least impressive showings in Formula 1 this year has been the performance of the Honda V10 engine. Honda and its rival BMW re-entered the sport at the same moment and BMW is already winning races. Honda is not even looking threatening. Worse still, Honda should have had the advantage over BMW because it kept up with F1 developments thanks to its close associations with Mugen.

This is strange given Honda's amazing success in Formula 1 between 1983 and 1992. In that time Honda scored six consecutive Constructors' Championships and five Drivers' titles for Nelson Piquet (1987), Ayrton Senna (1988-90-91) and Alain Prost (1989). The McLaren-Honda partnership between 1988 and 1992 resulted in 41 wins in 74 starts and the magnificent 15 out of 16 victories in the 1988 World Championship is a record that is never likely to be beaten.

Honda withdrew from F1 at the end of 1992 blaming the economic recession for the decision but no sooner had that happened than a secret Honda-Honda F1 car was tested at the Tochigi circuit in Japan. The company said the car had been put together by Honda engineers in their spare time. No-one believed them. After 1994, however, that program disappeared. The suggestion was that Honda found that building chassis was more difficult than it thought.

But that remained the dream. It was an ambition which dates back to 1962 when Soichiro Honda set his engineers the task of building a car and an engine that would win in Formula 1. In 1964 Honda entered F1 with its own chassis, its own engines and its own ideas. The engines were great but the chassis were not and after a less-than-successful campaign - which resulted in only two Grand Prix victories - the company withdrew at the end of 1968.

The 1980s project was a marketing one. Honda wanted to improve the image of its cars and so decided to be an F1 engine supplier only. The project was headed by Honda R&D boss Nobuhiko Kawamoto (who had worked as an engineer on the original F1 program in the 1960s) and propelled him to the Honda presidency in 1990.

Kawamoto's aim was to take Honda back to F1 with its own team. He planned to establish a team in Britain, employ European experts to build prototypes and then gradually place Japanese engineers in the program. But there was opposition within the Honda Motor Company, particularly the Motor Sport Department which wanted to buy an existing team and allow Honda chassis men to learn from the Europeans before transforming the team into a Honda operation. It was the safer option. There were talks to buy Jordan. The collapse of these negotiations allowed Kawamoto to go back to his original plan. In the summer of 1998 a secret design office called Honda Racing Developments Ltd. was opened in Leatherhead by Dr. Harvey Postlethwaite. This began designing a Formula 1 car which would be built for Honda by Dallara in Italy.

The work was already well-advanced when Kawamoto was toppled in a management coup in Japan. He was replaced by a man of his own generation Executive Vice President Hiroyuki Yoshino. Kawamoto's disappearance had no immediate effect on the F1 planning. Honda R&D boss Takefume Hosaka and his engineers sent engineers to Europe to learn as the chassis were designed and built. A few weeks later an 11-hour meeting took place at Honda's Cricklade factory in which it was decided that it was too risky to enter F1 in 1999. Honda agreed on a program for 2000.

As soon as Tyrrell closed down that autumn around 60 of the staff moved to HRD's new factory in Bracknell and by the middle of December the Honda F1 prototype car began testing. A couple of days later Yoshino announced the plan.

But those against the idea were still in action and at a Honda board meeting in March 1999 the project was cancelled. Postlethwaite tried to save the operation by offering to buy 60% of HRD and find the budget to run it. Honda would supply free engines and retain the right to buy the team back whenever it wanted. Days later Postlethwaite died. In the fortnight after Harvey's death BAR convinced American Honda boss Koichi Amemiya to support a plan to supply engines to the new team. HRD was closed down.

BAR looked to be well-placed but the team was too new and, to cover itself, Honda did a deal with Jordan later that year for a second factory engine supply. This year, however, neither team is performing and questions are being asked. The teams are well aware that ultimately Honda will pick one or the other. There is still politicking in Japan between the men at Honda Motor and the men at Honda Research & Development. Insiders say that the problem at the moment is that Honda is trying to do too much: supplying two teams in Formula 1 and five teams in CART. BMW's success has added to the pressure.

Yoshino is now 61 and approaching retirement. Amemiya is the same age and so a new management will eventually take over. The big question is whether the new chief will come from Honda R&D as traditionally has been the case, or whether he will be a marketing man from Honda Motor. Hosaka is one man who is in the running for the top job and if he gets it, the Honda-Honda dream will probably be revived.