Formula One Entry: The Second Phase / 1983
A Long-awaited Comeback in F-1
"Racing is part of Honda’s corporate culture. It does not matter if we win or lose. We want to show our best technology to the users of Honda cars in the form of entertaining spectacles. This is why we decided to resume racing activities," Kiyoshi Kawashima, president of Honda, announced the company’s return to the racing circuit at the New Year press conference in 1978.
Spirit Honda’s machine competing in the Austrian Grand Prix in August 1983
The CVCC engine, developed by Honda as a pioneer low-pollution engine, was receiving rave reviews. The decision came after the introduction of the Life, Civic, and Accord Hatchback, which further expanded Honda’s lineup of commercial models.
Honda returned to the World Motorcycle Grand Prix Series in 1979. However, going back to F-1, which had progressed so much during the past ten years, was a difficult decision to make. Finally Honda decided first to take on F-2 to gain sufficient records and experience before competing in F-1. As a result, it took Honda five years after the 1978 announcement to actually make a comeback in F-1.
In 1981, its second year in F-2, Honda won the European F-2 Championship. It was followed by a monumental record of twelve consecutive victories spanning the 1983 and 1984 seasons.
In 1983, Honda began developing F-1 engines. With the company planning to expand its lineup of commercial models in Japan before the scheduled deployment of a three-channel distribution system, things were hectic at the research center. However, as general manager of the F-1 program, Nobuhiko Kawamoto’s policy of not sacrificing the mass production models was firmly intact.
In the second phase, Honda decided to form a partnership with European chassis manufacturers to gain recognition in the world of F-1, supplying only engines. The company set its goal to becoming the number one in the world.
Honda returned to the F-1 circuit at the British Grand Prix in July 1983, in which it competed as Team Spirit Honda. The Silverstone circuit was crowded with journalists and photographers wanting to witness Honda’s comeback after a fifteen year hiatus. To their disappointment, however, the team retired after only five laps. The South African Grand Prix, the last race of the season, saw the debut of Team Williams Honda. Their machine, driven by Keke Rosberg, managed to finish fifth.
Only a few members of Honda’s F-1 team had experienced the company’s early days in F-1 racing, with the team comprised mostly of young engineers who had no experience in F-1. Honda’s aim in assembling young engineers was to foster in the demanding, most-challenging environment of racing the skills and knowledge of these people, who would lead the company’s product development in the future.
Still, the majority of fans expected their Honda to win anyway.
The Hard-earned Victory in Dallas
The 1984 season, Honda’s second year in F-1, started with the Brazilian Grand Prix in March. Honda surprised everybody with its machine finishing second in the first race. Despite the brilliant start, however, Hondas struggled in the following races, producing mediocre results between fourth and six positions and keeping fans anxious.
"We were disappointed race after race, and started to feel a victory might never come," recalls Kawamoto.
The final of the Dallas Grand Prix was held July 8 under the boiling temperature of 40 degrees Celsius. One after another, machines retired due to overheating.
Wisely, Williams Honda had installed a device in the driver’s helmet to keep the inside temperature cool. The team’s machines had problems with the engine and chassis, but Rosberg, a former world champion, did not hesitate to show his brilliant maneuvering technique on the circuit built along city streets. He brought Honda its first victory ten races after following the comeback.
Led by Mamoru Haji, chief engineer, the team members who had been working day in and night out dashed to the winning machine, with the British and Japanese flags in their hands, and hugged each other. Watching beside the circuit as general manager Kawamoto kept praying throughout the race.
"We won the race, but surprisingly I didn’t feel anything special," recalls Kawamoto. "I had a busy schedule, and flew back to Los Angeles the same day. Then, when I entered the restaurant I was told to go to, I found our colleagues from American Honda and HRA (Honda R&D North America) prepared a big party for me. The big banner read ‘Congratulations for the Victory!’ That was when I realized we had won. I was overcome by joy and excitement."
It was the first solid step forward in the second phase in F-1, toward proving that Honda was number one in the world.
The Road to the World Championship
Despite the victory in the Dallas Grand Prix, the fundamental problem with the engine was still unresolved. The engine was lacking the horse power needed to perform on the European circuits under cold weather. As it turned out, the machines could not finish any of the remaining seven races, except two in which Jacques Laffite and Rosberg managed to finish.
From the Italian Grand Prix in September 1984, the team was managed by Yoshitoshi Sakurai as new general manager, with Katsumi Ichida also returning to play a key role. To win the race, Sakurai was planning to triple the staff and budget for the team over the following two years.
After the end of the 1984 season, Ichida camped in a hotel with three young engineers to design an engine that could win. It was the approach Ichida himself had learned from Kawamoto a while back.
"Ichida came to me and showed his new engine," recalls Kawamoto. "It was completely different from what I had instructed. Just as our Old Man would do, I had reminded them not to deviate from the original concept without thoroughly ascertaining it would work. But they ignored my advice and designed something different. And, it worked beautifully."
The new engine was introduced from the Canadian Grand Prix in June, the fifth race of the 1985 season, and brought four victories during the year.
At the same time, there was a gradual change of generations in both engine design and management, with younger staff replacing their older, more seasoned counterparts.
In 1986, the power of the young team finally realized the dream of everyone who had ever involved in Honda’s F-1 effort - to win the constructors championship title.
Along with his wife Sachi, Soichiro came to Australia to watch the last Grand Prix race of the 1986 series. It was the second time he cheered the team from the stand, after the U.S. Grand Prix in 1965.
"Thank you for continuing our dream," Soichiro said. "Although we could not win the race today, you brought us the amazing world champion title. Thank you very much. Good work indeed." Then, he sat in front of the team and respectfully bowed his head so deeply that his forehead almost touched the floor.
Successive Victories in High-tech Wars
The young team members wanted to make their machines invincible, and decided to take a scientific approach to refine their racing.
A telemeter problem-analysis system was developed and a process was put in place through which every judgment would be made based on data, not by experience or the sixth sense, so that the answer would be the same regardless of who produced it.
As a result, Honda won nine races in 1986. The number increased to eleven in 1987, followed by an amazing fifteen wins out of sixteen races in 1988. In 1989, the first season after the new engine regulation took effect marking a transition from turbo to NA (naturally aspirated) engines, Honda scored eleven victories and continued its domination.
It was Honda that first introduced computer control to F-1. Gradually, it became a norm in the industry. Ichida talks about the progress of Honda’s computer technology in F-1: "On the track, control became a very important factor. From the accelerator and brake to gear shift, every timing can be controlled through computer. Until then, decisions had been made mostly by engine and chassis engineers using their experience and sixth sense. But it somehow changed: Computer engineers became an important pillar of F-1 racing."
Settings were translated into numeric values, so that they could be changed from the keyboard according to the driver’s request. For example, information such as richness of fuel was entered as a computer code. After getting used to the procedure, computer engineers took the lead in responding to the driver’s request and determining the optimal setting, with help from engineers who knew the engine. Computerized control technology came to play an increasingly important role in F-1 racing, and computerization progressed in many aspects of the race at an astonishing pace.
"I once asked a computer engineer, who was communicating with the driver to determine all settings for the race, if he liked F-1 personally," says Ichida. "To my surprise, he said, ‘No, I don’t like it.’ To him, it did not matter what was connected to his computer, whether it was a F-1 car or an electric washing machine. He was just doing his job. It is a fact that F-1 was in a way supported by people with such indifference to the sport."
Growing Popularity of F-1 Among Japanese
To let Japanese people know more about F-1 and increase their interest in the sport, Honda announced at the end of November 1986 it would host the Japanese F-1 Grand Prix at the Suzuka Circuit for five years beginning in 1987.
In 1987, Honda signed a contract to supply engines to two teams: Team Williams, which had Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet, and Team Lotus, which had Ayrton Senna. The other driver of Lotus was Satoru Nakajima, who became the first Japanese to compete in F-1 as a main driver. "It was a turning point in my life," says Nakajima, who had been dreaming of becoming a F-1 driver for ten years. "For any person, there are things that he can do and he cannot do. I never thought of such a thing for ten years while I was struggling to get there. However, I spent one year on the same team as Senna and realized the limits of my ability or my range. Then, suddenly my idea changed. It was like, ‘I know my limits. Now what can I do within them?’"
The British Grand Prix in July 1987 brought a historical victory to Honda, with Mansell, Piquet, Senna, and Nakajima finishing first, second, third, and fourth, respectively. Boosted in part by the extensive TV coverage, with broadcasters starting to cover all sixteen races from that season, the popularity of F-1 began to grow among Japanese.
In 1988, Honda partnered with Team McLaren, one of the strongest teams in F-1, signing Senna and Alain Prost as drivers. Team Lotus signed Piquet and Nakajima. That year McLaren established a number of records, winning 15 out of sixteen races with ten one-two finishes.
"The key to becoming the best in the world is to team up with the best drivers in the world. Through these partnerships, we received much valuable advice on how to improve our machines," says Ichida. "They also have very warm and generous sensibilities. When the team could not win and everybody was feeling down, they often treated the mechanics to an enjoyable day on their cruiser. There was a strong emotional tie between the drivers and the staff. Probably the Japanese public came to know the human aspect of the drivers through the media and that boosted the popularity of F-1."
In 1988, Senna won the race at Suzuka and grabbed his first world championship title. He also established several records that year, including the most pole-position starts in a season. Senna went on to win two consecutive world championship titles in 1990 and 1991. His three series titles with Team McLaren Honda ranks third in F-1 history. Honda won a total of 71 races from 1964, the first year it competed in F-1, until it temporarily withdrew from the race after 1992. In fact, 32 of the wins were won by Senna.
The Formidable Rival: Williams Renault
In 1991, Senna began the season with four consecutive victories. However, McLaren Honda’s machines started to lose their usual brilliance and began lagging behind Williams Renault’s from the fifth race. That year, the team fought through the difficult races with excellent teamwork and scored eight victories in the end, winning the sixth constructors championship title and the fifth drivers championship title.
However, Williams Renault’s V10 engine had virtually caught up with Honda’s V12 engine in output performance. In addition, McLaren Honda’s machines were losing speed at turns because of the balance problem between their chassis and engine. Furthermore, computerized control technology alone no longer assured victory in the technological war in F-1; teams were now racing to advance their chemical research capability to find an optimal fuel mixratio.
McLaren Honda fought the 1992 season with Honda’s new V12 engine, which incorporated every thing it achieved through basic research. However, the machines were outperformed by Williams’ cars in the first five races. When the season ended, Honda won five races all together, one of which was the last race in Australia.
For the Honda team, it was the last race that would end their ten-year history in F-1. The staff gave everything they got to set up the machines and entrusted their hope to the drivers. In the beginning, McLaren Honda’s Senna and William Renault’s Mansell fought a close battle for the top position. However, they crashed with each other on the nineteenth lap and retired. As if to redeem Senna’s honor, Berger jumped to the front during the final laps. Shrugging off a rival who once closed in on Berger to within 0.74 seconds, he managed to pass the checkered flag first and gave the final victory to Honda.
The End of the Second Phase in F-1
A large headline appeared on the front page of Asahi Shimbun newspaper July 18, 1992. It read:"Honda Motor to Withdraw from F-1."
Kawamoto, who had spoken to the newspaper's reporter about Honda's withdrawal from F-1, had not expected it would make a front-page headline. It showed how Honda's participation in F-1 racing and the related activities, including race organization and publicity promotion, had taken root in Japan over the past ten years.
Kawamoto talks about the end of the company's second phase in F-1: "We started to lose sight of our initial objective in the race. Because the team became so popular, people came to expest Honda to win. Accordingly, we stopped experimenting with new technology. The team members also ran out of energy.
"Another reason was a financial one. Despite the team's growing popularity, sales in Europe remained sluggish. Furthermore, the collapse of the bubble economy made the company more vulnerable. In view of all the factors that surrounded Honda at the time, it was time the company stopped and regrouped itself."
In September 1992, the president's message announcing Honda's temporary withdrawal from F-1 was broadcast at all factories and branches. The employees heard the sad news as it was read by Kawamoto, the driving force behind Honda's comeback in F-1 and one of the strongest advocates of recing in the company.
Kawamoto talks about the significance of competing in F-1 and his hope for the successors:
"Honda is not an F-1 company. F-1 is significant, because it provides an opportunity for Honda to challenge the summit in its own way. It requires an effort of monumental proportions. Just like climbing a vertical cliff, one mistake and you will plunged into the abyss. The significance lies in the process of striving to achieve such a difficult goal.
"I hope there will be employees in the future who would go to the management and say, 'I really want to do F-1. Please give me a chance.' We are a technology and product driven company. It will be wonderful if people who create technologies and products have such a spirit. For the company to continue and celebrate its 100th anniversary in prosperity, it is very important to build a tradition of initiative and self-guided development."
Toward the Third Phase
On March 9, 1998, Honda revealed it was discussing the details of returning to F-1 racing. As Kawamoto hoped, young engineers had expressed their strong passion for the race.
For the third phase, Honda planned to organize its own F-1 racing team and take responsibility for the overall aspect of the race from the development and supply of engines, as it did in the second phase, to chassis development and manufacturing as well as team management. Through these activities, the company aimed to further the skills and knowledge of young engineers and accumulate state-of-the-art technologies.
"We are positioning our return to F-1 as a new challenge for new Honda as it celebrates the 50th anniversary of its founding," said Kawamoto. announcing the company's intention to return to F-1. "In addition to the fans of CART racing in which we are currently competing, we want to meet the expectations of many more motorsports fans." His comment showed Honda's strong enthusiasm for a new challenge the company is willing to take on with its own F-1 racing team.