The earliest steps are the most troubled and the learning curve is a steep one. But eventually, the adept are rewarded. When in 1964 Honda first entered Formula 1 with a neat device called the RA271, complete with transversely-mounted V12 engine — it was little surprise that no points were scored. But Ronnie,Bucknum had qualified tenth at Monza and ran as high as fifth before retirement. Encouraging. With Richie Ginther on the driving force for .1965, Honda’s serious intent became ever clearer and the mutual faith between team and driver first yielded results at Spa-Francorchamps, with fourth on the grid and a finishing position of sixth place. Over succeeding races, the pace of the RA272 became ever more apparent, qualifying third at Silverstone and Zandvoort (another sixth place finish), sixth at Monza with Bucknum and then Ginther’s third on the grid at Watkins Glen. The momentum was building, and the cars were finishing too. It was only a matter of time before pace and reliability came together, and on 24 October 1965, Richie Ginther won the Mexican Grand Prix, the final race of the season.
Following success is always hard, and the more powerful engine developed for the 1966 car required a bigger heavier chassis, and that was its downfall. With the 1964 World Champion John Surtees in the driving seat, there was no lack of driving talent, but his efforts went largely unrewarded in the RA273 in ’66 and ’67. Behind the scenes, however, Surtees was also playing a crucial role as development driver. His and consequently Honda’s associations with Lola led to the partnership’s RA300 model, which stunned onlookers with victory in its debut race at Monza in the hands of Surtees. Team and driver finished fourth in their respective championships.
Hopes were high for 1968, but a series of misfortunes and mechanical problems with the RA300 and 301 models restricted the squad to a handful of points finishes. Even worse, Jo Schlesser had been killed in the revolutionary new RA302 at Rouen. In November Honda announced its withdrawal from Formula 1. And that was it until 1983. Nothing improves the breed like competition one of motorsport’s clichés that has been proven true and rather than just pound around deserted test tracks, Honda elected to enter the 1983 World Championship, making its debut at Silverstone in the back of the Spirit. Despite this being something of a hybrid chassis a Formula 2 car adapted to Fl regs Stefan Johansson qualified 14th and Honda were underway. The car was to retire more often than not in subsequent Grands Prix, but at each race, experience was gained. And when the V6 Honda turbo engine fired up in the Kyalami pitlane for the last round of the season, it was in the back of a Williams.
For Frank Williams to have shown so much faith in an unproven product, we felt, he must have spotted considerable promise. He was nobody’s fool. Sure enough, we saw a glimpse of this promise when, in that South African Grand Prix, the partnership’s first race, Keke Rosberg drove the Williams Honda to sixth on the grid and finished the race in fifth. After considerable success with the normally-aspirated Cosworth engine Williams was entering a new era. But no-one yet knew that a new era of Formula 1 was starting too, in which Honda would eventually re-write the record books.
For 1984, Honda extracted more power from the RAE-163 engine by revising its intercooler system, but the company admitted it had a somewhat savage power delivery, which demanded lightning quick reactions from its driver on the exit of corners. That man was Rosberg. Eight times he qualifed in the top six, and the year was crowned for Honda, Williams and Keke himself with a magnificent win in the searing heat of Dallas. The Honda name was back in F1 ‘s winner’s circle!
The momentum just kept building. In 1985, now with Nigel Mansell partnering Rosberg, Honda had two genuine stars utilising their engines. At the fifth round of the championship, Honda introduced a new, far more tractable engine and the following race saw Keke win with it. Top six qualifying positions were now a matter of course — capped by Rosberg’s stunning 160mph pole position at the British Grand Prix — and eventually the dam burst: the last three wins of the year all went the way of Williams Honda.
The following year, nothing could regularly match the combination of power and fuel efficiency of the Honda engine, and in the back of the Patrick Head-desgined Williams FW11, this made for a potent weapon. Mansell won five races, new team-mate Nelson Piquet won four, and though Alain Prost, genius that he was, snatched the driver’s World Championship, Williams Honda were runaway winners of the constructors’ crown.
For 1987, the FIA had announced restrictions on turbo boost to 4-bar in order to contain sky-high power outputs, which demanded a lot of effort from engine manufacturers to extract the best performance from their units. Unsurprisingly, Honda solved the problem better than any other company — and by some margin. Not even supplying engines to a second team (Lotus) diluted their challenge, and Williams Honda was even more dominant that year in the Constructor’s Championship. And this time three wins and consistent finishing were enough to also deliver Piquet the driver’s title. Mansell won six races — and should have taken more — but it was not enough to beat his canny team-mate, while the Lotus Honda won twice in the hands of Ayrton Senna. So of 16 races that year, Honda scooped honours in 11 — a remarkable record — the highlights of which were a 1-2-3-4 finish at Silverstone and a 1-2-3 at Monza. If we thought that was dominant, 1988 was something else. Honda had elected to switch to McLaren from Williams, (while retaining the supply to Lotus) and in the last year for turbos now restricted to 2.5 bar boost Honda knuckled down and developed a new engine. Effort was rewarded. Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, driving the Honda-powered McLaren MP4/4, won 15 of the 16 races, Ayrton took the Driver’s Championship and the Consturctors’ title was won by a huge margin. Indeed, McLaren Honda attained over three times as many points as their nearest rival, Ferrari. Simply astounding.
The next three years proved Honda had the firmest of grip on the Formula l’s normally-aspirated engine regulations too: with McLaren, the Honda V10 won the Constructors’ and Drivers’ title in 1989 and ’90. And in 1991, it was Honda’s new V12 that became the unit to beat and yet again, no-one managed it: Senna and McLaren Honda again scored a championship double.
By the time Honda withdrew from Formula 1 at the end of 1992, Honda had six Constructors and five Drivers World Championships to its name, amassing a total of 71 Grand Prix victories and 74 pole positions.
Honda’s return to Formula 1 racing in 2000 with the ambitious British American Racing squad was welcomed by all even the company’s rivals for motor racing reveres heroes like no other sport, and there can be no doubt that Honda’s achievements puts them in Formula l’s pantheon of greats. And how appropriate it is that Honda celebrated its 200th Grand Prix at Monza of all places. Like the tifosi, Honda is passionate about motorsport, and Surtees, Piquet, Frost and Senna have between them won the Italian Grand Prix for Honda six times.
The word Honda is written large across the 1986-91 period of Formula 1, and for that they are rightfully proud. They should be excited too, however: next year, with Jordan as well as British American Racing, Honda will be embarking once more on the battle for supremacy. And who would bet against them?