Honda’s rise to Formula 1 fame
At times, Honda’s journey through Formula One has been like the style of its most famous drivers: smooth and successful. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Ayrton Senna and his fellow drivers were powered to victories by Honda engines, dominating the field. But other periods have been more like the air coming off a rear wing: turbulent. Ahead of the new F1 season and an exciting new partnership with Toro Rosso, The Engine Room charts the history of Honda in the greatest show on four wheels.
It’s almost impossible to comprehend quite how ambitious Honda’s entry into Formula One really was. It was 1964, and the company had only been making road cars for four years. Not only that, no Japanese manufacturer had ever produced a car for F1 – the sport had been dominated by European teams for years.
But Honda had an ace up its sleeve: it had been active on the TT motorcycle racing scene for a decade. After clinching overall victory at the Isle of Man TT in 1961, founder Soichiro Honda was hungry for four-wheeled success. "Since childhood," he once said, "my dream was to become a champion in world automobile racing with a machine I had made myself.”
He’s said to have been a taskmaster, encouraging his F1 team to meet an ambitious target: the creation of an engine capable of producing 170mph. But his approach worked. One engineer who was present at an early testing session where the Honda prototype F1 race car, the RA270, showed improvement, wrote in his notebook: “The Old Man is happy.”
Just a few months later, Honda built on the success of that first design with the RA271, which made its F1 debut in August 1964 at the German Grand Prix. American driver Ronnie Bucknam was in the cockpit as the car made an encouraging first outing, running in ninth place before crashing out just three laps before the finish.
The following season, a little more than a year after its debut in the sport, Honda tasted F1 victory – and the champagne on the podium – for the first time. Richie Ginther’s RA272 surged to the front of the pack at the Mexican Grand Prix and stayed there to take the win.
Having learned of the victory in Central America, Soichiro Honda held a press conference. "Ever since we first decided to build cars, we have worked hard and been willing to take the most difficult path," he said. "Now we must study the reasons why we lose, and do the same when we win, so that we can use that knowledge to improve the quality of our cars and make them safer for our customers. That’s our duty.”
This racing triumph followed with victory at the Italian Grand Prix in 1967. But there was disaster, too. A crash claimed the life of Honda driver Jo Schlesser in 1968. Shortly after, the company withdrew from F1. But it would return.
The Golden Years: 1983-1992
Fifteen years later, Honda came back to F1 and saw success as an engine supplier to the Spirit, Williams, Lotus, McLaren and Tyrell teams in the ’80s and early ’90s.
Things really started to kick into gear in the closing stages of the 1985 season. British driver Nigel Mansell and his Williams teammate Keke Rosberg of Finland each were victorious in the last three races of the year. The team carried its Honda-powered dominance into the next two seasons, taking the Constructors’ Championship in 1986 and 1987. The following year, Williams gave way, but it was to another Honda-powered team. McLaren won four consecutive Constructors’ Championships between 1988 and 1991, while Nelson Piquet, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna all picked up Drivers’ Championships between 1987 and 1989. Brazilian maestro Senna got three of them, in 1988, 1990 and 1991 – a legendary feat.
Honda’s most dominant year was in 1988, when the McLaren-Honda cars driven by Prost and Senna claimed 15 pole positions from the season’s 16 races (Senna got 13 of them) and recorded the same number of race wins. Senna’s eight victories were a new record at the time.
This era of motor racing history – and the story of the uneasy relationship between the established champ Prost and the young upstart Senna – features prominently in the Bafta-winning documentary Senna.
McLaren’s 199-point haul in the Constructors’ Championship in 1988 was a new record (next-best Ferrari scored only 65 points) thanks largely to the new V6 turbo (the RA168E) that Honda had developed to deal with newly reduced fuel and turbo boost limits.
By the end of the 1992 season, Honda-powered cars had won 69 Grands Prix since re-entering the sport as an engine supplier in 1983. Lotus got two, Williams accounted for 23, while McLaren claimed an astonishing 44 wins from 80 races with Honda engines.
Did you know?
Ayrton Senna also worked closely with Honda’s engineers to develop the
legendary NSX road car. He owned two, keeping one in his native Brazil and
another in Lisbon.
Rebirth of the Honda team: 1998–2008
Honda produced its own F1 engine in 1998 and brought in British engineer Harvey Postlethwaite as technical director and designer to work on a new chassis. However, while observing testing of the car in 1999, Postlethwaite had a fatal heart attack. With the key man no longer at the helm of the project, the prospect of a new Honda F1 team was taken off the table. But Honda did ink a deal to supply engines to the British American Racing team (BAR) from 2000.
Honda’s engine was also used to power the successful Jordan Grand Prix team in 2001 and 2002, before the company committed to BAR. After a strong showing in 2004, in which Jenson Button’s 10 podiums helped BAR come second in the Constructors’ Championship to Ferrari, Honda bought 45% of the team. The following year, the company acquired the remaining 55%. In 2006, Honda supplied engines to Lucky Strike and Super-Aguri.
British hope Button claimed the first victory of his F1 career in a Lucky Strike-Honda in 2006 at Hungaroring, coming from 14th through a field that contained F1 stars Fernando Alonso and Michael Schumacher. However, in keeping with the trials and tribulations of Honda’s F1 history, there were strong headwinds to come.
At the end of the 2008 season, Honda was forced out of F1 by the pressures of the financial crisis, although much of the team that had worked together for Honda would go on to play a part in Button’s Drivers’ Championship victory in 2009, which was achieved under the banner of Brawn GP – named after the former Honda F1 team principal Ross Brawn.
McLaren Partnership 2.0: 2015–2017
In 2015, Honda returned to F1 yet again. This time it was with hopes of rekindling the great partnership with the McLaren team that brought so much success in the late ’80s and early ’90s. However, from 2015 to 2017, the coupling failed to yield the same kind of results. The tie-up came to an end at the end of last season, but the move isn’t the end of Honda’s latest spell in F1…
2018 and beyond...
When the Toro Rosso cars of Pierre Gasly and Brendon Hartley take to the grid at the Australian Grand Prix on 25 March in Melbourne, they will be powered by Honda engines. Sights have been set high, as the Honda team has publicly stated its aim to be one of the top three teams in the sport in the first year of this new partnership.
"People tell me we'll have much less pressure at Toro Rosso but I don't think that's true," said Honda F1 project leader Yusuke Hasegawa. "In my mind we simply need to prepare the best engine and nothing is going to slow that down."
Ever since Honda took its first steps into F1 more than half a century ago, ambition has never been in short supply. That doesn’t look like it’s about to change.