After early forays with Spirit, Honda hit the big time in Formula 1 by teaming up with Williams for the 1984 season. It was the start of a relationship that would deliver the British team two constructors’ titles in 1986 and ’87 and give Nelson Piquet his third and final world championship. But at the height of its success, the relationship between Frank’s team and its Japanese engine supplier soured: for the 1988 season Honda switched to rival team McLaren. The split was so sudden and seemingly unexplainable that rumours and theories spread, while the politics were largely unknown.
So what really happened behind the scenes and how did the relationship during the winning years play out? In a new Motor Sport podcast, hosted by Ed Foster and available from this month on our website, we asked Sir Patrick Head, who was the team’s technical director, that very question.
What then followed was the most comprehensive answer by any guest in the history of Motor Sport podcasts. Below is an abbreviated version of Patrick’s detailed insight into Williams-Honda. For the full podcast, which will be released on June 26, and many others in our ‘Engineering F1’s Drivers’ series, readers should click here.
Patrick Head: “The Honda side is very interesting because when we first got together, the company had been very successful in Formula 2 with Ron Tauranac and Ralt. The engine was designed by Nobuhiko Kawamoto [later the CEO of Honda between 1990 and ’98], who had been one of the mechanics, but with an engineering degree from Tokyo University, on the 1-litre F2 engine. He was a bit of an insomniac and designed the engine on a drawing board that he had alongside his bed at home. He’d wake up in the middle of the night and do a bit of designing.
It was not a mainstream Honda project. It was hugely successful in F2 with Ron, and then with Spirit. Soon they decided to go into F1 with them, so they produced a short- stroke version of that 2-litre engine. Spirit didn’t really have the funding or resources to get involved in F1, but it did run a car that started a few races in the latter part of 1983. Mr Kawamoto quickly realised that Spirit wasn’t going to get the job done. Honda had a very good relationship with Jack Brabham and obviously because of Jack, a good relationship with Tauranac. It was Ron and Jack that said ‘why don’t you go down to Williams?’. It wasn’t us persuading them. By the middle of the year we had done a deal with Honda to do a full season of F1 in 1984 and it was quite a learning experience.
A block, sump and heads, plus two turbochargers in a box and three alternative length inlet manifolds were delivered to Williams by a van driver, with no paperwork at all. At that time, communication was by telex – I remember the ‘dah dah dah’ chattering away down below in the front office – so I sent a message by telex saying, ‘could you please advise for a heat balance for the engine?’. I asked for heat balance and installation details. They came back, and I have still got the telex somewhere, ‘Please design as you think’.
One of our engineers, Gary Thomas, started on the engine installation, which included learning about the thermodynamics of a turbo engine. Gary used to race motorcycles badly and come off them very often, including at the Isle of Man, so one was always worried about losing him… He worked away on the heat balance, with me checking in every now and then, and we worked everything out for ourselves. We produced this very basic car, the FW09. It wasn’t a beauty to look at, and it wasn’t hugely successful. It was usually a question of how far we’d get before the pistons came out of the exhaust pipe, as it still had F2 pistons. It didn’t have all the piston cooling, but it also had an incredibly low compression ratio, something like 6:1. If you put your foot on the throttle at low revs, you had almost nothing, maybe 150bhp, and then suddenly the turbos would kick in. How Keke drove it I have no idea.
We were having a terrible time in 1984 – mostly with melted pistons and aluminium sprayed neatly down the inside of the exhaust systems. It would be like a nice skin neatly lining the exhaust, melted pistons!
Mr Kawamoto turned up at Zandvoort and he realised it wouldn’t work: ‘We are not taking this seriously and we’re getting a bad reputation for not being reliable’.
I remember once in Montréal there were six mechanics, three down one side and three down the other, changing the bearing caps and the bearing shells on the engine at the track like they had in motorcycle racing! It was very different.
Mr Kawamoto went back to Japan and completely restructured the project, with Yoshitoshi Sakurai as project leader and Katsumi Ichida was brought in as the chief engine designer. It all started getting serious. By the time we got into 1985 you could tell things were coming up in a big way.
In 1985 at the Austrian grand prix, Keke told Frank that he was leaving at the end of the year. Brabham was in trouble because it had done the lay- down flat car and it was unreliable and not very quick. So Nelson wanted out of Brabham and Frank did a contract with him in the car park in Austria. In ’86, at a test before the season started, Frank had the accident that broke his neck.
He was in a hospital bed for pretty much all of the early part of that year. He clinically died three or four times, and Ginny, Frank’s wife, was being advised to let him go. He owes the rest of his life to her because he kept filling his lungs with liquid and she would jump on top of him and pump his lungs out. The doctors were saying to her, ‘let him go, let him go’, and she refused.
We went to the last grand prix of the year in Australia. We had three or four tyres explode in testing, and I’d been talking to Goodyear, saying, ‘the problem is the tyres aren’t strong enough’. And they had said, ‘no one else is having a problem, it’s only your car’. I said, ‘well look, we probably have more power than anybody else, and we are able to trade that off with more downforce, so all that’s happening is that you are seeing the problem with us before you see it with anyone else’. I have to say, they were not very responsive.
We then had the tyre explode with Nigel, and that put him out. Then Nelson was in a position to win the world championship, and I was in a position that I could see that Nelson’s tyres, before the end of the race, were going to be beyond the life of Nigel’s. I couldn’t guarantee if they were going to burst, or whether they were going to burst in a place that was going to be benign.
Even though there was enough rubber on them to finish the race, I called Nelson in. I was on the pitwall in charge and to be fair to Nelson, he never ever criticised me for that decision. He came in, changed tyres and went out again. He closed right up on Alain Prost and was only two or three seconds behind at the end of the race, but Prost won.
I had to fly to Japan and Honda after that. We had won the constructors’ but hadn’t won the drivers’ title. Honda was pretty gutted. I got a sort-of dressing down from Yoshitoshi Sakurai. Mr Kawamoto was very clever because he was the nice one and Yoshitoshi was the tough one. He’d keep separate, and he wouldn’t be in the same room when Yoshitoshi was trying to give me a hard time. I went into this meeting, and there was Gérard Ducarouge from Lotus. Lovely man, but he had been blowing in Honda’s ear, saying that in a Lotus they would easily win the title.
I had been talking to Ichida for the whole of ’86 about the height of the engine because the oil filter was underneath the crankshaft, so the engine sat incredibly high in the car. I think we could lower it by something like 33mm if they changed the oil filter. Not only would we be lowering the engine, but we’d be lowering the gearbox, too.
Honda was definitely very concerned about staying with Williams with Frank as he was because they couldn’t see where the leadership was coming from. They could see I was the technical leader, as I had been beforehand, but they didn’t know where the business leadership would be because Frank was still pretty weak. Frank came back in 1987, but he was fighting his own battle to prove to himself, prove to the outside world, that he could still run the business side of the team, despite being in a wheelchair. I should have sat down with Frank and said, ‘Do you realise, Frank, that Honda is not happy? You have to find some way to keep them happy.’
Honda had told us that they would be supplying Lotus with engines for the 1987 season, and bloody Ducarouge was saying, ‘I don’t need a lower engine, I can win the title with the engine as it is’. Ichida had shown me an engine being motored with the low sump, but bloody Ducarouge was telling them ‘I can win the championship with the engine as it is’ and Honda would not supply two types, so we had to scrap the intended car for 1987 and upgrade the ’86 car. So I was pleased when we beat Lotus with the same engine. And Senna. Nothing against Senna, they won some races, but by about the middle of the year Williams was stronger, finishing first and second in the drivers’ championship and easily winning the constructors’.
In mid-1987, Sakurai told us that ‘McLaren is going to be our lead team next year with Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna’. That low engine was the one that went to McLaren with the lower height. Gordon had done a low Brabham so was influential in doing a low car, and the low engine went there.
Well, with Prost and Senna, McLaren was going to be the lead team. Honda was in love with Senna; it had huge admiration for him, with good reason. We were told: ‘You’re to run Nelson Piquet and Satoru Nakajima’. The latter was a perfectly passable driver, but it meant that we had no chance in the constructors’.
Frank and I sat down and we talked about it. We already had a contract for 1988, but Honda said ‘We’re going to tear it up’ so it was very tough. They said, ‘That’s it, we will supply you, we’ll fulfil our contract for you, but it will be with Piquet and Nakajima’. It would have meant saying goodbye to Nigel, and I think we had a contract with Nigel, so it was complicated. It felt lousy because we were winning everything, beating their other team and being told they weren’t going to be with us next year. It was fairly unhappy.
The thing is, they really needed us in 1983, ’84 and ’85 when they were miles away, but by the end of ’85 and ’86 they were the cock of the north and had a very high opinion of themselves. It’ll be interesting to see if that happens this time.
Mr Kawamoto and I always got on, and when we had a historic car running a Honda engine, he would always help. You don’t make enemies unnecessarily in this world, otherwise you end up with no friends. In fact Mr Kawamoto had lunch with Frank and I in the Williams boardroom when he retired, it was a happy lunch with lots of stories, so we still get on well.”