Modern Times

In the Barcelona paddock, the main topic of conversation wasn't the continuing domination of F1 by Michael Schumacher, the perceptibly widening gap between Ferrari and Williams, or the apparent lack of power produced by the engine that Mercedes and Ilmor have built for McLaren this year. It was Jordan's recent decision to get rid of almost 60 of its staff, starting with long-serving managing director Trevor Foster, technical director Eghbal Hamedy and senior race engineer David Brown.

No-one has better first-hand knowledge of the highs and lows of F1 's roller-coaster than Eddie Jordan. Now Eddie has decided that, in the current climate of rising costs and potentially falling sponsorship, swingeing financial cuts are essential for the long-term security of his team. McLaren are rumoured to be wooing one of his major sponsors, DHL, and Benson & Hedges are spending less this year. But behind this tough move there is also concern about Jordan's relationship with their engine supplier, Honda.

About 40 years ago, British motor magazines used to run patronising overviews of Japan's motor industry, such as it was. Its outdated, derivative little cars, built in small numbers for its domestic market, were unobtainable, and unwanted, in the rest of the world. Today the once-great British-owned motor industry is almost dead. Toyota is the world's most successful motor manufacturer. Hondas and Nissans are built in modem British factories, and many of us drive Japanese cars every day. From motorcycles to hi-fl, from cameras to tumble-dryers, we take the Japanese invasion for granted.

They've wielded huge influence over motorcycle racing, too. But, so far, Japanese domination of Formula One hasn't quite happened. This year, Toyota have made a far better start to their F1 programme than many pundits expected, and they currently lie seventh in the constructors' championship. But, after five of the 17 rounds of this year's world championship, there are two teams that haven't scored a point. Not Minardi, not Arrows, not even Jaguar: they are the two Honda-powered teams, BAR and Jordan.

BAR, of course, are coming through a punishing period of transition after Craig Pollock's abrupt replacement as imam boss by David Richards. Richards has culled many personnel, and says it will take three seasons to get the team to the point where he is satisfied with it. This year they've scored six retirements and four lowly finishes. As for Jordan, some of their sponsorship deals are said to be results-related, so they must be hurting: all they've had in the first five rounds have been seven retirements, a couple of ninths and a 13th.

Honda tried to buy Jordan a few years ago. The deal would have made Eddie Jordan an even richer man than he is now. But, when it became clear that Honda's majority share would involve taking Eddie's name off the team that he'd built, the talks ground to a halt. Then there was talk of closer working arrangements between Honda and BAR, on cars as well as engines.

Now it seems Honda finally understand they are unlikely to forge a really strong relationship with either team while they continue to supply both. Paddock gossip suggests that it's BAR that will stay in bed with Honda, and that Jordan will no longer have access to their engines when their current deal expires. Indeed, it may be that Jordan will have to pay real money for their engines from the start of 2003.

It's almost 40 years since the first Japanese foray into Grand Prix racing. In 1964, Honda, having taken top-line two-wheel racing by storm, produced their first Formula One effort. It was highly unconventional, using a transversely mounted V12 slung across the back of a truncated monocoque, with power taken from the centre of the crankshaft via spur gears to a six-speed box. They deliberately kept their sights low at first, and hired as their driver Ronnie Budcnum, a Californian sportscar man unknown in F1 circles.

But after three exploratory races that first year, they completed a full two-car season in 1965, led by former Ferrari and BRM man Richie Ginther. Richie briefly led the British Grand Prix, and then sensationally won the final round in Mexico, leading from start to finish. It was the last race of the 1500cc formula: had the rules continued for another year, many felt that Honda, with their experience of small-capacity, multi-cylinder racing engines, would have been almost unbeatable.

Honda carried on for the first three seasons of the 3-litre formula, but it was a tough road. They had the most powerful powerplant on the grid, but fought a constant battle with complexity and weight. The relationship with John Surtees produced a lighter and much improved Lola-based chassis and a singleton win at Monza in 1967, but there was also the tragic flirtation with the air-cooled V8 car that killed Jo Schlesser at Rouen. At the end of 1968, Honda withdrew, and as a full manufacturer team they haven't been back.

But as engine-builders, first as themselves and then via their Mugen subsidiary, Honda have been a force in F1 for the last 20 seasons, winning a crushing six consecutive constructors' titles and five consecutive drivers' championships with Williams and McLaren in the late 1980s and early '90s. At the end of '92, they passed the baton to Mugen, who were already supplying the Footwork Arrows team. Then they went to Lotus, Ligier/Prost and finally Jordan, before the Mugen name gave way once again to Honda proper in 2000.

Down the years, other Japanese engine-makers have tried to follow Honda's lead, and found F1 a difficult nut to crack. Subaru bankrolled the Motori Modemi flat-12 used by Coloni in 1990, but it never even got through pre-qualifying. Yamaha had a disastrous first season with Zakspeed in 1989, during which the shortest life fora new Yamaha unit before exploding was said to be 49sec. Then they tried Brabham, Jordan, Tyrrell and Arrows. With Mark Blundell and Ukyo Katayama driving, Tyrrell finished joint sixth in the constructors' table in 1994, helped by Mark's fine podium in Spain. But that was the high point, and after 1997 they called it a day.

There has been the occasional Japanese chassis, too. At the height of the 1970s Cosworth DFV kit-car era, Malti and Kojima both appeared in F1, the former doing Howden Ganley's and Tony Trimmer's careers no good at all, and the latter having a brief moment of glory in the soaking 1976 Japanese Grand Prix. Against the might of the regular F1 circus, GP rookie Masahiro Hasemi used the latest Dunlop wet-weather tyres to set fastest lap in the Kojima KE007.

As for Japanese drivers, there has been no lack of Far Eastern money to help promote the latest potential cockpit star. But ultimately most have been a disappointment. The latest of these is Takuma Sato, who after winning last year's British F3 Championship was chased by both BAR and Jordan, in the hope of currying favour with Honda. Jordan got him, and he has so far distinguished himself by crashing into his team-mate in Malaysia and spinning off in Spain. Eddie Jordan might have done rather better if he'd taken note of the winter test times and given the drive to F3000 champion Justin Wilson.

Of Sato's predecessors, Toranosuke Takagi was much vaunted, but his time at Tyrrell and Arrows proved little. To date Aguri Suzuki remains the only Japanese to achieve an F1 podium, in a Larrousse Lola-Lamborghini at Suzuka in 1990. Satoru Nakajima set fastest lap in the rain in his last race for Team Lotus in Adelaide in 1989, and the undoubtedly talented Kazuyoshi Hoshino was brilliant in the wet at Mount Fuji in 1976 in a private Tyrrell.

Ukyo Katayama was probably better than his results indicate, but in 95 GPs he never bought his way into a decent seat. The others — the likes of Taki Inoue, Hideki Noda, Noritake Takahara and Kunimitsu Takahashi — are best forgotten, along with Hiroshi Fushida, Masami Kuwashima, Naoki Hattori and Toshio Suzuki.

It is against this background that Toyota decided to enter Formula One. They were told it was madness to try to do the whole thing themselves, engine and chassis: you have to be Ferrari to do that. But they have extraordinarily deep pockets, they are patient, and they are not too proud to use foreign talent. They set up their HQ in Germany, with a Swedish team boss, an Austrian chief designer (replacing a Frenchman), and drivers from Finland and Scotland. They tested assiduously throughout 2001, and — almost unbelievably — they were in the points first time out.

Honda may want to beat Ferrari: but far more than that, they want to stay ahead of Toyota. And this year, against all expectations, they're already behind. This, more than anything, will impel them to reorganise their F1 effort and breathe new life into one, but almost certainly not both, of their current team partners.

Honda, 37 long years ago, were the first Japanese marque to win a grand prix. But their worry now is that Toyota, perhaps in not many seasons' time, could be the first Japanese marque to join F1 's Top Four teams.