27 May 2018

One year ago, two of Honda’s biggest racing worlds were colliding. While we had competed at Indianapolis and in Monaco on the same weekend for the previous two seasons - and won at Indy the year before with Alexander Rossi - there was even more interest in the two races taking place on different sides of the Atlantic.

That was because Fernando Alonso was making his Indy 500 debut, meaning Formula 1 and IndyCar were even more intertwined than usual. But for Honda, it was just another race to try and win. Well, almost…

“Indianapolis has added importance,” F1 technical director Toyoharu Tanabe says. “The Indy 500 is one of the IndyCar Series races but it is completely different to the others and more than only one race.

“I didn’t realise how big it was when I started the IndyCar project in 1993. Then in 2014 when I was there and Honda won the race, that’s when I realised it is completely different. It’s a very important race.

“If you ask someone who was the driver who won the championship in 2000, perhaps most people cannot answer. But if you ask who won the Indy 500 in 2000 then many more people will remember, so that’s the big difference.”


Right now, Tanabe heads up the F1 project trackside, but a year ago he was at Indianapolis in his previous role of Senior Manager of Honda Performance Development (HPD). As a separate arm of Honda in America - similar to the way the F1 project is based in part out of Milton Keynes - his aim was still the same: to improve the presence of Honda. And the best way of doing that is to win races.

Indianapolis had been a successful venue for Tanabe and Honda for a number of years, having won 11 of the past 13 Indy 500s prior to last season. But then came an even more special success courtesy of Takuma Sato.

“So basically HPD is an American company but Honda is based in Japan, and there are some Japanese drivers in the IndyCar series, but no Japanese driver had ever won the Indy 500 before last year,” Tanabe says.

“When Sato and Honda won, it was a big difference from the other drivers winning. After Takuma’s win in Indy, all the Japan Honda members celebrated as well, so it had a huge impact on the Japan side. It very much improved the racing presence in Japan too.

“I got a lot of messages from people in Japan as well as people in the US. I was very surprised, I had many emails coming in!”


Those messages were due to the close ties between Sato and so many people at Honda. Having earned Honda support after impressing at the racing school at Suzuka, he had made it to Formula 1 and enjoyed a strong career with Jordan, BAR and Super Aguri.

Tanabe was Jenson Button’s chief engineer in 2004 and 2005 when Sato was on the other side of the garage - engineered by Yusuke Hasegawa - and so the pair already had history of working in the same team in F1 even before joining forces in IndyCar racing.

“We knew each other for a long time from Formula 1 and I knew he had come to drive in IndyCar with a Honda car as well. Then in 2013 I started to work at HPD and we had a Long Beach race when I met him and he won the race!

“With Takuma racing for the win at Indianapolis, my feeling was a very special one. On the other hand, I felt slightly different things apart from thinking about the win because we had some engine failures during practice and also the race. With Indy rules meaning all engines are to the same specification, I had a very hard time in the last few laps. I was so nervous!”


The eyes of much of the world may have been on Indianapolis for a different Honda-powered driver initially, but they were watching Sato in his Andretti fight it out with the Chevrolet-powered Penske of three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves in the closing stages.

“Helio is one of the best drivers in the IndyCar series and he is also very good at racing at Indianapolis, so I was very worried about him until the last few laps. With maybe two or three laps to go, Helio lifted after failing to make a pass and he dropped back a bit. The distance between the two cars got a little bit bigger compared to the previous laps so then I felt a little bit more comfortable and then I knew he can do it.”

Sato took the chequered flag to hand us our 12th win in the last 14 attempts, but it was that little bit more special with a Japanese driver who has enjoyed such strong Honda support behind the wheel.


While the two races in Monaco and Indianapolis could not be more different - one the shortest grand prix distance of the season on a tight and twisty street circuit, the other a 500-mile blast at over 200mph on a super speedway - there are more similarities between the racing projects than you might imagine.

“We communicated key technology areas between Japan and America,” Tanabe says of his time at HPD. “So we don’t ask Japan to develop something and they don’t ask us to develop something, but like the turbocharger, the direct injector, the combustion, it’s all a very similar spec to what we have in Formula 1 and other GT cars race engines in Japan and the HPD side.”

And that means Tanabe-san’s wide-ranging experience is applicable to his latest role leading the F1 project at each venue. Having tasted such success at Indianapolis, he now focuses on this weekend’s Monaco Grand Prix - and the future of Honda in F1 - with the desire to replicate that feeling in grand prix racing.

“Of course when Honda participates in racing - not only Formula 1 but also other categories - our desire is always to win the race. Especially people trackside, they want to run at the front of competitiveness and we always try to win the race. We need to understand our current status, of course, but we need to try to improve and then to win races all the time.”

Full commitment is behind Toro Rosso’s chase of points in Monaco, but that doesn’t mean Tanabe won’t be keeping one eye on events over in America once the race in Monte Carlo is over…

“I think I’ll be watching on Sunday! This year the Honda car doesn’t look so strong compared to last year, but the Indy 500 is such a long race so I will be waiting to see what happens in the last stint.”


Honda may be the only manufacturer competing in both races on Sunday, but with around an hour between the chequered flag in Monaco and green flag in Indianapolis you can bet Tanabe won’t be alone in watching both famous races.