A man of the world

On December 3 a 76 year-old man succumbed to renal insufficiency in Tokyo, and a with him died a slice of the history of the Honda Motor Company

When he first came to the notice of Europeans, Yoshio Nakamura was pigeon-holed with the usual ‘inscrutable’ tag so beloved of westerners encountering an Oriental for the first time. Few of the reporters in 1964 who covered Honda’s first tentative steps in Formula One even appeared to know his first name, as if Japanese were different and didn’t have them. They called him Engineer Nakamura, which accorded him an even greater air of mystery.

As history would reveal, however, Nakamura-san was a man of great stature despite his small, slim frame. A man who breached the world not only in the purely geographical sense as he liaised between Honda’s headquarters in Tokyo and its European bases in Belgium and Holland, but in the cultural sense too. Almost singlehandedly, as manager of that first project, he drew together the disparate threads of East and West.

It was Nakamura who had pushed hard back in Tokyo for a Formula One project. He had joined Honda as an engineer in 1958, and he would be actively involved with the company until 1987. For a time he was Managing Director. Thereafter, he remained an advisor. Back in 1964 Honda was feeling its way with cars, not only in its nascent Formula One project which would take over from its domination of motorcycle racing, but in the road car world too. The company could not have chosen a better man to make things work.

When Honda began casting around for a driver for its RA-271, it was Nakamura who cleverly avoided the trap of opting for a Japanese pilot. He appreciated that at that stage his countrymen lacked the sheer knowledge and experience of European racing. Instead, it was he who advised the telephone call to Californian surveyor and amateur SCCA racer Ronnie Bucknum. It was not a logical choice by any means, but again it was smart. With a rookie there would be no expectations from the media; Honda could learn at its own pace. “We needed to select a new face,” said Nakamura quietly.

When it was apposite, he chose Richie Ginther to lead the team in 1965, because he knew that Honda now needed someone who could mature a car. That year the RA-272 was more competitive as the team learned how to make its complex, transversely-mounted V12 engine work, but by the American GP the end was in sight. Soichiro Honda made his one and only appearance at a European GP, and having watched his lead car qualify on the second row but finish only seventh, two laps down, there was a mood of terrible depression within the camp. There was talk of closing the project. It was Nakamura who grasped the nettle, and who bullied, cajoled and persuaded Tokyo to give him complete charge of the team for the final race of the 1½-litre formula, in Mexico City. Aware of how critical it would be to set up the low-pressure fuel injection system at Mexico’s 7500 ft altitude, he had the team test at the Autodromo Ricardo Rodriguez for two days before the race. Ginther qualified on the second row again, but this time he led by the hairpin on the first lap, and was seven seconds ahead of Dan Gurney after 20. That had been reduced to five by lap 35, but Ginther had Dan under control that day and went on to win by 2.89s. Nakamura cabled Tokyo: ‘Veni, vidi, vici…’

It was Honda’s, Ginther’s and Goodyear’s first GP triumph, and thus created a little bit more motor racing history, but it was much more than that for it laid the foundation for the dramatic Honda successes that were to follow in the 1980s.

When Honda again looked like closing down its racing operation at the end of an unsuccessful 1966, it was Nakamura who appreciated that he could persuade the management to continue if he had a driver such as John Surtees in the camp, and who duly arranged precisely that. Looking back on it all, Big John recalls the message he received from former mechanic Tadashi Kume after Nigel Mansell had beaten Nelson Piquet to the line in their Williams-Hondas in the 1986 British GP. “Effectively he told me that if it wasn’t for what we had achieved together in the ’60s, none of the latest success would have happened.”

Surtees and Nakamura worked well, and it was Nakamura who bulldozed acceptance of the RA-300 ‘Hondola’ through in Tokyo as Surtees and Eric Broadley worked on the new car in Slough in readiness for that dramatic success in the 1967 Italian GP at Monza.

“Naka-san was a good friend,” says Surtees today. “We worked together and a great friendship grew and remained through time. He was very loyal, intensely loyal, and the important thing is that he was his own man. He was not a yes man, and that led him into conflict with Honda’s management at times. But he would stand up and be counted.

“That little Slough team that we had together was headed by Nakamura with me sitting in. There was Nobuhiko Kawamoto and Tadashi Kume too as mechanics, and we know what happened to them as they went on to lead the Honda company. There was quite a lot of dissent, between those who were based in Europe and had European knowledge, and those based in Japan. And it was Nakamura who had to sell everything to Honda in Japan. Everything was dependent on Tokyo, but he would make the decisions and then try to sell them to the management there.

“When we did that car in 1967 we had a slight nod from Tokyo and Sano the chassis man got stuck in and effectively we created one of the first partnerships of that sort. If Nakamura hadn’t taken the positive points and pushed them through. . . He was totally devastated when Honda introduced the air-cooled car, and then ended the project in 1968.”

Nakamura had a knack for making the right decisions in the field, and frequently set things in motion without waiting for authorisation from Tokyo. He requested Bucknum to push the RA-271 hard enough to break it because that was the way that Europeans learned, whereas the Japanese way called for finishes at all costs. He understood the imperative of pressure in development.

Bucknum told Honda’s biographer Chris Hilton: ‘Nakamura was a wonderful man. At the race meetings he was very compassionate, very concerned. I think he was considered a bit odd by his own people because his outlook was more western. He thought about things in the way that I did.’

“There are no words to adequately describe the sadness we felt when we heard of the sudden loss of Mr Nakamura,” said Kawamoto, now President of Honda Motor Company but still typically deferential to a man so many held in great reverence.

“Mr Nakamura, with his detailed knowledge of automobiles, dedicated himself to international communication of automotive technology, through numerous activities as the chairman of IMMA (International Motorcycle Manufacturers Association) and of FISITA (Federation Internationale Societe d’Ingenieurs et Techniques de l’Automobile).

“Additionally, he left a copious amount of books and works in an expanded field, hoping for the further development of F1 racing. “It was a great loss to the automotive world as everyone expected that he would continue his activities for many years to come. His loss will be felt by everyone at Honda as well as the automobile community.”

“In recent times perhaps he was shunned a bit,” thought Surtees, “because he had been openly critical of Soichiro Honda, but he believed that change only came about through standing up and speaking. That was not the standard Japanese way of doing things, but the future of Honda to a large extent was formed by that little team.”

Nakamura was a true engineer. Friendly, inquisitive, quick to learn. Yet self-effacing and easy to overlook in the F1 paddocks, especially in modern times. He continued coming to the races in recent years, and wrote a popular series of interview columns for the Japanese magazine GP-Express, but despite the massive influence he wielded in his time only the cognoscenti now recognised him. Those who engaged him in conversation found him not just an affable companion, but a complete enthusiast and a man who could laugh at himself. He once related the tale of how he imbibed a little too much of the scotch that he favoured, during an international flight, and lost his false teeth when he visited the toilet.

He still thought that was hilariously funny, and had no qualms about telling a story against himself. “He was,” said Surtees, “someone I respected deeply, and for whom I had great affection.”