With almost 60 years of heritage in the books, here’s a throwback to when Honda Motorsports was carving a path for itself.
Honda’s first foray into the racing world is a tale that began in May 1962, one with a sort of modest awareness. At the time, the term ‘Formula 1’ or ‘F1’ was a foreign topic to the people at Honda, and the only source of information they had was the Cooper Climax, an F1 machine obtained by the research centre six months prior.
It was January 1964 when the highly anticipated entry of Honda in the F1 was announced. And what an announcement it was! An underdog amongst the titans, Honda was the youngest car manufacturer in Japan. Yet, it was the first Japanese manufacturer that was bold enough to step into the world of car racing.
“A childhood dream,”—that was what Soichiro Honda held on to. It was his persevering passion towards the dream that propelled the brand into competing in the F1. In fact, it takes no oracle to predict it, especially when Honda was making a name for itself in another corner of the racing world: the TT motorcycle racing.
Motorcycle racing and car racing are two entirely different ball games, and for Honda to make the leap into F1, the team needed to be equipped for success. It had a small team of engineers at first, most of whom were from the motorcycle racing world. Multiple experienced engineers and fresh college graduates were hired to support the R&D that ensued. Leading that team was none other than Soichiro Honda himself.
Engine design engineer Fujiya Maruno recalls the immense joy that Mr. Honda expressed on the day when the prototype exceeded its 200-horsepower mark for the first time. It took Soichiro Honda countless sleepless nights and notes to his engineers to finally achieve the power that he intended the RA270 to have.
The challenge was not over yet for the team though. They have secured the engine, but now they need an able chassis to pair with it. And although the research centre could provide the test car its chassis, the centre could not spare its resources as it was primarily in the passenger vehicles’ development arena. That was when Yoshio Nakamura, who later became Honda’s first F1 team manager, was sent to Europe to promote the Honda engine.
The journey proved to be a success; Lotus was chosen to be Honda’s partner. But when the engine was ready, the partnership fell through. This short-lived deal was yet another obstacle for the team. Being relatively new in the auto manufacturing field, building the chassis on their own was no small feat. However, perseverance in the face of adversity gave them their first, purebred, race-ready F1 machine. The RA271 was the result of the team overcoming technical issues that spanned from material and design to components and parts. This made them one of the few teams that assembled both the power unit and chassis.
The Journey (First Phase)
The highly anticipated debut arrived in August 1964 at the German Grand Prix. But with only three laps left to the finish line, the RA271 crashed out. Most would take this as grave news, but not the Honda team. It was running in ninth position, and the team took it as a small victory, especially after a crushing qualifying round where the RA271 could not even complete a single lap.
That year, the racing machine competed in three races. And although it retired in all the races, the team was looking forward to utilising all information gathered from those three races into the next season.
From there, the team worked to make improvements on the RA271. The chassis material had an upgrade from duralumin to the much-lighter corrosive-resistant aluminium alloy. The rest of the components and design elements also had to reflect this change. A second driver, Ritchie Ginther was also signed, and the teams took into consideration his advice on how to better the machine.
However, the 1965 Grand Prix season proved to be tough on the team. At the Italian Grand Prix, both of the machines retired with engine problems. At the U.S. Grand Prix, a large leaf accidentally flew into the radiator and caused it to overheat, and it crushed their dreams. Things took a turn at the Mexican Grand Prix, the last race of the season, where the conditions were just right for Ginther’s RA272 to make a beeline for victory.
Taking place 2,000 meters above sea level, it created the perfect environment for Honda’s fuel injection mechanism to function optimally. The RA272 boasted a roaring 48-valve V12 water cooled engine and the capacity for rapid acceleration, which drove the team into winning its first ever race from lights out to the chequered flag. At long last, after two strenuous years’ worth of effort, on October 24th 1965, Honda had finally won a race. After celebrating the momentous occasion, Honda rolled up their sleeves and got back to work, and continued to blaze a trail of success by championing another race in 1967.
Formula To Success (Second Phase)
Honda came back to the F1 tracks with even greater determination—to become the world’s number one. In 1983, Honda partnered up with European chassis manufacturers, supplying only the engine of the machine.
Over time, a younger crop of engineers entered Honda’s midst and provided much-needed perspective. With a compelling thirst to win, these engineers led to the development of the telemeter problem-analysis system, where judgement can now be made with concrete data instead of sheer intuition. Upon this advancement, Honda significantly improved its winnings: Nine races won in 1986; eleven in the following year; a resounding fifteen out of sixteen races won in 1988; and eleven in 1989. The brutal domination continued even after a new engine regulation was announced, which ended the era of turbo engines and ushered in the dawn of Naturally Aspirated (NA) engines.
All too familiar with achieving what seemed to be impossible, Honda upped the competition and became the first to integrate computer control in F1. The rest of the industry had no choice other than catching up to Honda’s standards.
Honda had made waves in the racing world. Now, it was time to take the crowd home: to Japan. At the end of November 1986, Honda announced that the Japanese F1 Grand Prix will be held at its Suzuka Circuit for five years beginning in 1987.
The company provided engines to two teams: Team Williams with Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet on the team; and Team Lotus which had Ayrton Senna and Satoru Nakajima, Japan’s first main driver in F1. These men finished in first, second, third and fourth places at the 1987 British Grand Prix. With extensive media coverage, Honda was rallying an entire nation. The people of Japan were finally starting to pay attention to F1.
More records were broken in the following years. In 1988, with a partnership with McLaren, the team won fifteen out of sixteen races, with ten one-two finishes. That same year, Senna won his race at Suzuka, earning his first world championship title. After that, he won consecutive world championship titles in 1990 and 1991.
Later on, the competition got tougher. Williams Renault was a worthy opponent, and they kept McLaren Honda on its toes. Computerised control technology alone was not going to be enough to determine victory. This time, their fight was chemical, with everyone advancing their chemical research capability to find an optimal fuel mix ratio.
For the Honda team, it was the last race that would end their ten-year history in F1. McLaren Honda’s Senna and Williams Renault’s Mansell were neck and neck for the top position when both crashed into each other on the nineteenth lap and retired. Yet all was not lost; Berger managed to lead in the final laps and gave the final victory for Honda.
Honda F1 – The Finish Line
On July 18, 1992, the announcement arrived: Honda was withdrawing from F1. They took an eight-year sabbatical before re-joining the fray in the year 2000. Supplying engines to BAR, the BAR-Honda team went on to taking second place in the Constructors’ Championship in 2004.
The dark announcement came again in 2009. The global recession forced Honda to realign its focus and withdraw from F1. Some time passed, and it was 2015 when Honda answered the alluring call to the tracks. F1 made the switch to the new and efficient hybrid Power Units. Thrilled for the sport, Honda collaborated again with McLaren, reigniting one of the most famous racing partnerships to ever touch the tarmac.
By 2018, Honda was spreading its wings with new partners Scuderia Toro Rosso. That Winter break, they set to work to bring the STR14 and RA618H to life. The result? Achieving their best since the return to Grand Prix Racing, with Pierre taking fourth place in Bahrain. The year ended with the team placing ninth with 33 constructors points.
That Summer, news broke that Honda Racing will also be teaming up with the Senior Red Bull Racing team in 2019. Those partnerships produced several wins.
After all the highs and lows, Honda is once again bowing out of F1 at the end of 2021. This time around, it’s not due to unpleasant circumstances; it is to focus on realising a sustainable society, a vision set from 2010. The aim is to reach carbon neutral by 2050, but this can only be attainable if Honda hit the checkpoint of electrifying two-thirds of its global automobile unit sales by 2030. With the new centre, Innovative Research Excellence, Power Unit & Energy, Honda has already started research and development of new power units, supporting a carbon-neutral society of the future.