Honda and Formula One

Before we go into the whys and wherefores of the recent upheaval in Formula One circles caused by the Honda Motor Company’s decision to supply engines to McLaren instead of Williams in 1988, I think we ought to get a few things into proper perspective.

Honda is an industrial giant of the twentieth century in the true sense of the word, probably bigger than anyone in Great Britain can really appreciate, and certainly beyond the imagination of most people in the secluded world of Formula One. The racing branch of Honda Research and Development is deeply involved in Formula One, Formula 3000, motorcycle Grand Prix racing, motorcycle trials and Motocross, and all these activities are for the benefit of Honda, not for the people and teams involved.

The Honda racing department does not exist for the benefit of the Williams team or the Lotus team, or for the benefit of drivers or riders. They are all being used by Honda, for Honda’s benefit, and the Japanese giant is willing and ready to pay well to get the best to work for it, but it does expect results for its outlay, and results in the form it wants them.

Honda industry is worldwide in a sense few people seem to appreciate, not only in selling cars and motorcycles but in every imaginable form of motive power. If there is something useful that can be driven by an engine, you can be sure that Honda makes it and markets it anywhere from the North Pole to the South Pole, if there is a market for it.

In this vast industrial complex Formula One is a minute particle, though a very important particle, for it is a worldwide show-place, and a show-place where Honda can demonstrate its engineering capabilities; it does not hesitate to buy the best available talent to demonstrate its wares.

To the man-in-the-street, the Formula One racing season has but one objective, and that is to produce a World Champion driver at the end of the year. It is the man-in-the-street who buys Honda cars, motorcycles, charging plants, grass-cutters, light agricultural devices, leisure toys and everything else Honda produces, and the “man-in-the-British-street” is a very small part of the “man-in-the-streets-of-the-world” to whom Honda sells.

Worldwide, the name of Nelson Piquet is known not only as a Formula One driver, but as a World Champion, so when Honda turned full-power onto Formula One it was Nelson Piquet it had its eye on to promote its products throughout the world by becoming World Champion with Honda power. It rightly joined forces with the Williams team, as the Didcot firm was undoubtedly one of the best available, if not the best, and for 1986 Honda brought Piquet and Williams together to achieve its aim.

It did not write anything specific into the contract (whereby it was to supply the Williams tearn with engines and all the things that go with engines) that Piquet was to be World Champion; it was taken as read. The only thing it did specify was that Piquet was to be number one driver in the team, and he was to be afforded everything a number one driver needed. The fact that Honda paid a very large sum of money to move Piquet from the Brabham team to the Williams team should have made it obvious to anyone that the Brazilian was Honda’s choice for its World Champion.

By normal team standards the Williams number two driver would have been expected to provide support and back-up to the number one in his quest for the Championship. But this did not happen in the Williams team, and by half-way through the 1986 season it was clear that the two Williams drivers were arch-enemies as far as winning races and gathering Championship points were concerned. The season-long battle for Championship honours went right down to the last race, and due to one thing or another Alain Prost became World Champion, driving a McLaren powered by a German Porsche engine.

This was not what Honda had planned and paid for. The team rivalry between Piquet and Mansell within the Williams team continued into 1987, which did not make sense to Honda. It provided the racing spectators with some stirring battles, especially the British Grand Prix, but it was not the script that Honda had written, even if it didn’t show it to Frank Williams. Clearly the Williams team is operated for the benefit of the Williams team first and foremost (and who can blame Frank for that?) but the parting of the ways was inevitable.

In the meantime Honda planning in Formula One was continuing, and there were two important new aspects appearing. One was an eventual successor to Piquet, and you did not have to be very near the Formula One paddock to see that Ayrton Senna was the next choice; the other aspect was to give encouragement to a Japanese driver into Formula One. I cannot imagine Honda being very impressed when Frank Williams turned down the offer of Satoru Nakajima as number two to Piquet for 1987, insisting on retaining Nigel Mansell who was obviously of no interest to Honda.

Great Britain and parts of Europe may well be enthusiastic about Mansell, and he may be a household name on British television, but I doubt whether Eskimos lighting their igloos in Greenland with Honda generators have ever heard of him. Equally they may not have heard of Nelson Piquet, but I am sure the whole of South America, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand and the Far East have heard of him, and that is where Honda markets are; so the Eskimo would soon have been told that Honda’s World Champion driver was Nelson Piquet, except that it didn’t happen.

The Williams team might have won more than 20 races for Honda, but that was not the object of the exercise; winning races was supposed to have been a corollary to winning the Championship.

Expanding Honda’s activity in Formula One in 1987 to supporting two teams saw Team Lotus given engines, and earn itself a Japanese bonus by accepting the gift of Nakajima as number two driver. It already had Ayrton Senna on its books, and during 1986 he had given the Williams pair a lot of trouble with the Renault-powered Lotus.

1987 looked good for Honda, with two of the top teams using its engines, their two favourite drivers safely ensconced and an opportunity for the first Japanese driver in a serious works team to learn the trade. The only problem was that Piquet and Mansell were still being allowed to race against each other, to the point of absurdity at times, especially during qualifying for the starting grid.

It used to be a simple edict of a good team manager that when conditions were “dodgy” you made sure your drivers were well separated. If a catastrophe arrived you didn’t lose your whole team in one accident. Yet I lost count of the times that Piquet and Mansell would leave the pits one behind the other to challenge for pole position; worse still, they were actually competing against each other, not sewing up the situation for the team by co-operating. If it had not been for the innate skill of the two drivers there were occasions, such as the French GP and the British GP, when they could have both finished up in the guard-rails and a rival team could have “lucked” into the victory.

Some idea of the Honda attitude to Formula One was there to be seen at the British GP, when Honda-powered cars finished 1-2-3-4. The first three were fully expected to fill the first three places, for that is why they were bought by Honda, but the real icing on the Japanese cake was Nakajima bringing his Lotus home in fourth place, thus completing a Grand Slam. Honda made no bones about showing their great pleasure at in countryman’s achievement to make their day complete. It almost overruled their dismay at Frank Williams letting the “wrong” man win the race.

For people who cannot, or will not understand this attitude to racing, I would recall for them Karl Kling winning for Mercedes-Benz at the Avusrennen in 1954 and Stirling Moss winning at the British GP in 1955 in the Mercedes-Benz team — just two examples of industry-orientated team control.

The growing discontent between Williams and Honda did not happen overnight; it has been growing over a fair period of time, probably since the Australian GP at the end of 1986. Before the Italian GP at Monza the Honda 1988 plans were announced officially, even though they have been known to a lot of people for a long time.

Honda will be taking its engines and Nelson Piquet away from the Williams team, giving Piquet to Team Lotus, which already has Honda engines, and the Williams engine contract goes to McLaren International. In addition, Ayrton Senna is being moved from Lotus to McLaren, to join Prost in one of the most professional and well-balanced teams of all time. Prost and Senna have been announced as joint number one drivers, and McLaren International has shown in the past, that it is well capable of handling two top drivers, which few other trains have managed.

Nakajima stays with Team Lotus and continues to learn his trade, so Honda should be happy in 1988, but there is no guarantee that all will go smoothly; Formula One has never been like that.