It brought Honda back into the F1 arena but soon folded. Gary Watkins recounts the unlikely story behind the Spirit squad
You’d never have guessed you were witnessing the start of something big. It was an inauspicious debut by anyone’s standards. Smoke and steam poured from the stubby, strange-looking machine that had just completed a mere five laps of a non-championship race. Only those with great foresight, or perhaps that should read hindsight, would have predicted that the manufacturer making its return to Formula One that day would go on to dominate the top echelon of the sport.
Honda’s arrival back in F1 after an absence of more than 14 years was beyond low-key. The debut of its twin-turbo V6 at the 1983 Race of Champions at Brands Hatch came in the back of a converted Formula Two chassis. It was to be the combination’s only race outing for the next three months, and the five laps completed by this unlikely contender prior to turbo seal failure offered few hints of what was to come.
That Brands event, held on a cold and blustery April weekend, was a pivotal moment in motorsport history. Not only did F1 say ‘hello’ to Japanese manufacturer involvement in the modern era, it said ‘goodbye’ to the non-points races that had once made up more than half the season. Against that backdrop it is easy to see why the little 20-man British outfit that masterminded Honda’s F1 return has been largely forgotten.
Spirit Racing would have a three-season stay at the sport’s top level — an experience which was short on duration and success. Yet it could have been so different for a little team that had produced the definitive F2 car of the 1982 season.
The seeds of the Japanese car giant’s back-door return to grand prix racing had been sown nearly two years before Spirit’s F1 debut. John Wickham was team manager of the March F2 squad when Honda purchased an 812 chassis into which went one of its 2-litre V6s. Honda may have been on the way to winning the European F2 title with Ralt, but the Japanese wanted to keep their options open.
“There was a concern that, although Ralt was performing, maybe it had been taking its mind off the job because it was producing so many Formula Three cars,” explains Wickham. “Eventually that led Honda to decide it wanted a group of people who could concentrate fully on the F2 programme.” Wickham and Gordon Coppuck, who was working at March after leaving McLaren in the wake of Ron Dennis’s Project Four takeover, stepped forward. Spirit Racing was born, its name taken from a typically Japanese advertising hoarding in Tokyo for the team’s tyre supplier, Bridgestone. ‘Come Racing Spirit’ ran the tagline. Wickham didn’t quite know what it meant, but it had a ring to it.
While Coppuck and old friend John Baldwin, the team’s first employee, set about designing the car in a rented house in Camberley, Wickham went off to raise the budget. The future boss of the Footwork (née Arrows) F1 team dispels the myth that it was bankrolled entirely by Honda.
The car maker provided the engines, some financial assistance and workshops in Slough, formerly the European base for its 500cc ‘bike team, but Wickham explains that he “had to go out and find about half the budget”. His search finished where it had started: Wickham had been employed in an engineering role within the three-car March team in ’81 and his charge was F3 graduate Thierry Boutsen, who had backing from Marlboro Belgium. Another standout rookie that year was Stefan Johansson, who claimed two wins in an Alan Docking Racing Toleman sponsored by the Swedish branch of the tobacco company. “To my mind they were the two best drivers available for 1982,” says Wickham. “It made sense for a lot of reasons to bring them together.”
The result was two Marlboro-liveried Spirit 201s on the grid for the opening round of the F2 championship at Silverstone in March. Johansson qualified on pole and led the race, only to retire early. The neat honeycomb-chassis Spirit, the first car to be designed specifically for the Honda V6, was almost certainly a step ahead of the offerings from March, Ralt and Maurer that year. Between them Johansson and Boutsen notched up eight pole positions and led more than 40 per cent of the racing laps.
“I am very proud of that car,” says Coppuck, also the designer of the legendary McLaren M23. “At any particular race one of the other cars might have thrown up a challenge, but we were consistently quick. It was a good all-round car.”
Johansson was arguably the faster of the two drivers; witness his greater number of poles. But he also had a near-monopoly on the team’s misfortune. “The car was quick out of the box,” remembers the future Ferrari and McLaren driver, “but I had more than my fair share of dramas. There was always some little problem that stopped me winning.”
Boutsen, bizarrely, had an amazing finishing record, making it to the end of all but one of the 13 races and finishing in the points in 10 of them. A third win of the season at Enna in August left him needing another victory to seal the crown at the Misano finale a week later. The Belgian’s proven wet-weather skills combined with Bridgestone’s superiority in the rain appeared to have put him on course for a last-gasp title triumph. A drying track wouldn’t have been an issue but for the most unusual of problems.
“Bridgestone had an on-going development programme, and that meant we switched from crossplies to radials during the year,” remembers Wickham, “but it never got around to making a radial wet. It wasn’t a problem unless we had to change during the race.” That’s what happened at Misano; Boutsen slipped down to sixth and the title went to Corrado Fabi.
Spirit may have lost the F2 title, but it had just received good news. Prior to the Italian double-header, Wickham had travelled to Japan; the team had been chosen to help develop its new F1 engine.
“There was always talk of a turbo,” says Wickham. “It was all hearsay until the middle of the year when I was shown the engine. So I was aware what was going on, but the decision that we would be involved wasn’t made until before the last F2 races in Europe.”
Spirit’s job was to provide a mobile testbed for the new RA163E V6. The prospect of racing was, at this stage, merely a carrot dangled in front of Wickham and Coppuck.
A test mule, a new F2 tub modified to accept the turbo engine and bigger wheels and tyres, ventured out on track for the first time at Silverstone on November 24. “That date was always our target for no other reason than that it was my birthday,” says Wickham, “although we knew we needed to get the car out as early as possible.”
But within weeks ground-effects had been outlawed and the new flat bottom regulations announced. By the time the Spirit had arrived in California in February in search of good weather, it had cut-down sidepods and was redubbed 201B.
Boutsen and Johansson shared the driving at Willow Springs and then Riverside. The West Coast jaunt provided invaluable mileage for Honda, which had a Heath Robinson approach unrecognisable from the clinical world of F1 today.
“Honda’s engineers were happy to take the engine apart on the workshop floor and check the wear,” recalls Wickham. “Then they would bolt it all back together in time for the morning.”
On Spirit’s return to the UK, it began pushing to go racing. “We were a race team, so that’s what we wanted to do, but we also felt that if we didn’t, the engine would eventually end up somewhere else.”
The ‘go’ button wasn’t pushed on the race programme until March. Spirit knew it was unrealistic to join the F1 circus before the middle of the year, but it still had to register its intent before the start of the season. The final go-ahead for a one-car programme with Johansson as the driver wasn’t given until the night before the closing date. Wickham: “I fell asleep by the fax machine waiting for the decision.”
The Race of Champions offered an early chance to test the modified F2 car in the heat of competition before a revised car was readied for the British GP at Silverstone in July. “The 201C was the same in concept, but it was built with the correct-sized fuel tank and more robust suspension,” explains Coppuck. “It was a reasonable F1 car.”
Despite the new car, the poor reliability which had dogged the Spirit-Honda’s debut at Brands continued. “We had a lot of small electrical problems,” says Coppuck. “We were running electronic fuel injection at the personal request of Mr (Soichiro) Honda, which was a bit of a first for a turbo.
“We had a few dramas making the cut in qualifying, as Stefan might only get in one or two laps. His achievement in pulling laps out of nothing was fantastic.”
Johansson has similar memories of the Honda’s poor reliability. “I didn’t need to do any training,” he says. “We had so many problems out on the track that I would run miles hot-footing it back to the pits to jump in the spare.”
The Spirit would typically qualify ahead of the normally-aspirated cars, but behind the bulk of its turbo rivals. A seventh-place finish at Zandvoort in August suggested progress, but the Dutch race was followed by a disastrous Monza weekend that Wickham believes sealed the team’s destiny.
A new car, the 101, was delayed and failed to make it to the track in time for scrutineering. Then a frustrating series of engine failures left Johansson 17th on the grid, Spirit’s worst qualifying position so far. The Sword of Damocles hanging over the team suddenly fell.
Wickham had known since before Silverstone that Williams had an option with Honda for ’84. That deal was confirmed in August, though the prospect of there being two teams running the Japanese engines remained strong. “After Monza, Honda didn’t want us to take our car to the final race at Kyalami,” he says. “After South Africa we were told that it couldn’t supply two teams.”
Wickham believes the future was bright for Spirit. “I had a major sponsorship deal for the following year with Skoal Bandit,” he recalls, “but it was based on us having Honda engines.”
Spirit limped on through ’84 with Hart and, briefly, Cosworth power and contested the first three races of ’85 before pulling out to regroup. A new, “quite radical”, car was half-built, but by the end of the year the team had closed its doors.
Honda, meanwhile, was just getting into its stride.