Team of dreams: Honda's rollercoaster racing story

McLaren-Honda team photo 1990

McLaren-Honda years were zenith of Japanese manufacturer's success

Paul-Henri Cahier/Getty Images

The year is 1948. In Maranello, Italy, Enzo Ferrari is preparing for the debut of his first Grand Prix cars. Ferdinand Porsche is putting the finishing touches to the prototype of his new sports car, and in England Colin Chapman has just started work on his second trials machine. Thousands of miles away, another motoring visionary is beginning his own remarkable story.

Soichiro Honda was born in November 17, 1906, the eldest son of a village blacksmith. At the age of eight, a chance sighting of a Model T Ford on a dusty country road near his home fired Soichiro’s imagination. He was determined to work with cars when he left school. An apprenticeship at a Tokyo garage followed, where an understanding boss encouraged the young man’s interest in racing cars. Soichiro built his own car using an old 8-litre Curtiss aircraft engine, and he raced with considerable success until almost losing his life in an accident in the All-Japan Speed Rally of 1936.

His passion for speed and remarkable engineering ability went hand in hand with a sharp business acumen. In 1937 he founded Tokai Seiki Heavy Industry, supplying Toyota and the Nakajima Aircraft company until an earthquake all but destroyed the factory in January 1945.

Defeat in the Second World War brought about a profound crisis in japan. In a time of grave economic difficulty and social upheaval, the country needed hardworking and dynamic men of vision. Soichiro Honda had his part to play in the process of recovery: he would put Japan back on wheels.

Ronnie Bucknum gets ready for his – and Honda's – F1 debut at Nürburgring '64

Bucknum gets ready for his – and Honda’s – F1 debut at Nürburgring ’64

Grand Prix Photo

The Honda Motor Company was set up in September 1948. While Ferrari, Porsche and Chapman pursued their own destinies on the roads and tracks of Europe, Soichiro Honda set out to make his country mobile again. Early Honda’s were little more than bicycles with crude engines attached, but post-war Japan was hungry for any form of transport, no matter how unsophisticated. The Model D of 1949 was the company’s first real motorcycle, but it was the ‘Dream E-type’ of 1951 which cemented Honda’s reputation for durability and technical excellence. The new four-stroke machine set records for speed and for levels of production. Within ten years, Honda’s production efficiency and advanced technology had put all but four of its domestic rivals out of business.

Fast forward to 1964. In Japan, Hondas continue to reign supreme on two wheels, and since 1954 Soichiro’s machines have been winning bike races the world over. But memories of that Model T all those years ago and the races behind the wheel of his own aero-engined monster still linger in Soichiro’s memory. The love of cars, and of racing cars in particular, burns undimmed. Honda’s first road car, the S360/500 convertible, is rolling off the production lines, and the first Honda Formula 1 car is lining up on the starting grid.

From the archive

The fearsome Nürburgring in Germany was no place for team and driver to make their Grand Prix debut. The inexperienced American racer, Ronnie Bucknum, hustled the underdeveloped RA271 round the ‘Ring in eleventh place until crashing out four laps from the finish. The next race, the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, offered some encouragement. Bucknum ran as high as fifth before the Honda’s engine overheated. The American lasted 50 laps before retirement beckoned again at the US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen.

Three starts, three retirements. Not the stuff of which racing legends are made. But Honda’s experience in motorcycle racing showed that success could not be expected over night. After all, this was the very pinnacle of motor racing. To break into the sport’s elite would take time, money and determination.

What was the Grand Prix world to make of this upstart moped-maker and its little V12 racer? Certainly, the early outings in Formula 1 did not suggest that one day, Honda-engined racers would humble Ferrari. The potential, however, was there to be seen. Honda’s reputation on two wheels showed the established European teams that the Japanese company could make engines to match or beat the best in the world. The 60 degree V-12, with its four valves per cylinder, roller-bearing crank and 12,000rpm rev ceiling, was a radical design, pushing out some 220bhp. With better reliability’, and a more experienced driver, RA271 could really have given the racing establishment something to think about.

Ronnie Ginther en route to Honda's first F1 win in Mexico in 1967

Ginther took first Honda win at Mexico ’65

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Undeterred, Honda were back in 1965. The luckless Bucknum was joined by new number one driver, Richie Ginther. As test driver for Ferrari and BRM, Ginther knew how to develop and set-up a race winning car. His sensitivity and ability to describe the minutiae of a car’s behaviour were precisely the kind of qualities Honda’s race engineers needed from a driver. Consistent and capable, Ginther would help them to develop a truly competitive machine.

The RA272 was not a radical departure from the ’64 car. Rather, it built upon its strengths while seeking to iron out its weaknesses. Power increased still further, with 240bhp developed at 11,000rpm, making Honda’s compact V-12 the most powerful engine of the 1.5-litre era. If RA271 had failed to achieve much, here was a car with the potential to show the world the way home.

The season began in disappointing fashion. Ginther qualified poorly in Monaco and retired on the first lap. Matters improved at the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa, where Ginther finished sixth. The French Grand Prix brought more disappointment, both Hondas retiring short of the chequered flag. Better times were just around the corner.

Ginther started from the front row at Silverstone, and briefly held the lead before being sidelined with engine problems. The supremely powerful Honda was ideally suited to Silverstone’s long straights. Ginther led again at the Dutch Grand Prix among the dunes of Zandvoort, before dropping back to finish sixth.

The team lost form over the next few races, missing the German Grand Prix altogether before retiring at Monza and finishing seventh and two laps down at Watkins Glen. After the highs of the British and Dutch Grands Prix, it seemed that the momentum of RA272’s development had been lost.

John Surtees (seen here at Silverstone) would bring home Honda's next victory at Monza a year later

Surtees was next Honda victor

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The teams assembled for the last Grand Prix of the 1.5-litre era in Mexico City. The 7,000ft altitude starved engines of oxygen, but the super-efficient Honda V-12 coped admirably.

Ginther took the lead from the second row and was never headed. In spite of constant pressure from fellow American Dan Gurney in a Brabham-Climax, Ginther crossed the line to win by three seconds. History had been made. This was not only Honda’s first Grand Prix win, it was the first ever victory by a Japanese marque. Ferrari, Porsche and Lotus had all been left trailing in the Honda’s wake. Soichiro Honda had achieved a dream.

Victory at Mexico City should have been the springboard for great things, but RA272’s greatest race was also its last. Honda would need a completely new engine and chassis for the new 3-litre Formula 1 of 1966.

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The next three seasons were to prove frustrating. The new 3-litre engine was potent but overweight, and RA273 rarely looked competitive. The RA300 of 1967 was as beautiful as it was powerful but suffered from the same weight problem as its predecessor. Matching the mighty Honda engine to a Lola chassis brought some success, with 1964 World Champion John Surtees taking victory at Monza in one of the most thrilling races of the decade. Beating Ferrari on home ground was satisfying, but fundamental problems remained.

The RA302 of 1968 failed to turn around Honda’s fortunes, and when Frenchman Jo Schlesser was killed at Rouen, the team lost heart. Honda withdrew from F1 at the end of 1968.

In a short space of time, Honda had achieved much. The company had won races, and created the most powerful and technically advanced engines of the day. But the final step, from race winner to champion, had proven difficult. For Honda, Grand Prix racing was to remain unfinished business for nearly two decades.

Spirit Honda with Stefan Johansson was a false start on Honda's 83 return

Spirit-Honda with Stefan Johansson was a false start on Honda’s ’83 return

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Dominance on the track would have to wait. Building up the road car business came first. The S360/500 sports car had evolved into the S800, with an engine that revved to 8,000rpm and put out 70bhp from just 791cc. Technologically, the S800 was light years ahead of its antiquated British opposition.

But it was the Civic of 1972 that really established Honda as a big motor industry player. Its neat front-engined, front-wheel drive packaging gave fine road manners and a roomy interior, while Honda’s pioneering of Compound Vortex Controlled Combustion gave exceptionally low emissions. In Europe and the USA, the Civic sold by the shipload.

The Accord saloon and Prelude coupe continued Honda’s remarkable expansion. Sales continued to rise as the company teamed up with British Leyland in Britain and opened a new factory in Marysville, Ohio.

The race for commercial success was being won. But the urge to race for real was still strong. Soichiro had stepped down from the company presidency in 1973, but his successors recognised the tremendous value of Grand Prix racing, both as an image builder and as a proving ground for Honda’s technical brilliance. The return to Formula 1 was inevitable.

Honda was back on track for the British Grand Prix of 1983. In truth, the Honda Spirit car, driven by Stefan Johansson, was a toe in the water in preparation for a more serious effort the following year. The car competed in six Grands Prix that year without conspicuous success, but the experience gained was invaluable.

From 1984 to 1987 Honda competed in partnership with the Williams team. The first season was not an easy one. Formula 1 had altered beyond all recognition from the sport of the ’60s. Sponsorship, ground effect, downforce and turbo engines had all changed the face of Grand Prix racing, and Honda’s early efforts with its 1.5-litre turbocharged V-6 demonstrated the difficulty of combining competitive power with reliability. In spite of the problems, it was not long before Honda was winning again, with Keke Rosberg taking victory in the ninth race of the season, the US Grand Prix in Dallas.

For 1985, both Williams and Honda made great progress. Nigel Mansell now partnered Rosberg, arid the pair enjoyed a tremendous run of late season success. The V6 turbo unit had been thoroughly redesigned, and although problems persisted in the first half of the season, when the Williams-Honda hit form the results were spectacular. Rosberg and Mansell won two races apiece and ended the year on a high. The achievements of the ’60s had already been eclipsed. Could Honda go one step further, and challenge for the championship?

Piquet secured title in '87

Piquet secured Honda’s first titles in F1 with Williams

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The Williams-Honda was the class of the field in each of the following two seasons. Mansell was now partnered by Brazilian Nelson Piquet, and if their off-track relationship was spiky at best, it certainly produced some spectacular racing. Mansell won five races and Piquet four, comfortably winning the 1986 constructor’s championship. The driver’s crown eluded Mansell by just two points after a spectacular tyre blow-out in the final race of the season.

In 1987 Honda was even more dominant, now supplying both Williams and Lotus. With the Honda’s turbo V-6 now providing a balance of power and reliability which was the envy of the field, Honda-powered cats took 11 victories from 16 races, two for Ayrton Senna, three for Nelson Piquet, and six for Nigel Mansell. The driver’s championship for Piquet was the icing on the cake, with Honda powering its way to a second consecutive constructors’ championship.

From the archive

Already, Honda had little more to prove. In four years, the company had won 25 Grands Prix, and comprehensively beaten the world’s finest teams. Just as at Mexico City in 1965, the great European marques had been left trailing. Incredibly, better still was to come.

In 1988 Williams was replaced with a new partner: McLaren. The season that followed was unprecedented, and its like will probably never be seen again. With the best car, the best engine, and the best drivers, McLaren-Hondas won 15 of 16 races. Senna won eight times and took the first of his three drivers’ titles, with team-mate Prost finishing second with seven wins. With a scarcely believable 199 points, the constructors’ cup went to a Honda-powered team yet again.

Honda had proven itself undisputed master of the turbo era. If rivals hoped the change to the 3.5-litre naturally-aspirated formula in 1989 would slow the company down, they were to be bitterly disappointed. Ferrari, Renault and Lamborghini had all fallen behind schedule in the development of their non-turbo powerplants, and struggled to be ready for the first race of the new season. It is a testimony to the depth of Honda’s commitment to Grand Prix racing that their V-10 was race-ready as early as October 1988.

The superiority of the McLaren-Honda was almost as crushing as it had been the year before, ten victories giving Honda its fourth consecutive constructors’ championship. It was Prost’s turn to take the title, after a controversial collision with Senna in the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka. Honda’s V-10 powered Senna to the title once again in 1990, while a new V-12 unit brought another championship in 1991.

Senna, Prost and McLaren started new era of Honda domination

Peak of dominance came with Senna, Prost and McLaren

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At the end of 1992, Honda withdrew from Fl racing, job done. From the dreams of a young blacksmith’s son had grown a world-beater. The company which once attached two-stroke engines to bicycles had become manufacturer of some of the best engineered and technologically advanced cars on the road, and an undisputed Grand Prix great. The achievements in Formula 1 speak for themselves. From 1984 to 1992, Honda-powered cars entered 144 Grands Prix, and won 69 of them. In the same period, Ferrari won just 15 times.

But Honda is not resting on its laurels. Mugen, 40% owned by Honda, prepares Formula 1 engines for the Jordan team for whom Heinz-Harald Frentzen won the recent French GP at Magny-Cours. The new British American Racing team will receive full factory power plants in 2000. Watch out, Formula 1. Honda hasn’t finished yet.