Flashback: Honda terminates its engine deal with Williams

For two decades Maurice Hamilton reported from the F1 paddock with pen, notebook and Canon Sure Shot camera. In this 1987 scene, Honda turns up the awkwardness to max at a press conference

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I must have attended hundreds of press conferences across the years, but nothing compared to this one on Friday, September 4, 1987.

The scene is the garden of St Georges Premier, a restaurant made even more desirable by its setting, deep within the park at Monza. The location was chosen because it was neutral ground, away from the Formula 1 paddock. Our host, the Honda Motor Company, did not wish to insult Williams Grand Prix Engineering further by making public a decision to terminate the supply of engines. Frank Williams knew all about it, of course, but didn’t need reminding of how Honda planned to sever this technical collaboration one year early.

It had been a successful relationship in terms of performance but not, in Honda’s view, when it came to results. Williams had won the Constructors’ Championship in 1986, but Alain Prost and McLaren-TAG had nicked the drivers’ title at the final race. Honda saw its failure to claim the Drivers’ Championship for the first time as the result of Williams treating Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet equally – or, in Honda’s view, allowing the drivers to squabble among themselves. Even worse, Williams had resolutely refused to take on board a Japanese driver (Satoru Nakajima).

Another factor was Honda’s obsession with Ayrton Senna. When agreeing to supply engines to Lotus and Senna for 1987, it was Honda’s belief that the combination of powerful engine and enormously talented driver would wipe the floor with Williams. Come this 11th round at Monza, Williams had thrashed Lotus six wins to two and had been fastest in the practice session immediately preceding this lunchtime press call. All told, it was a combination of awkward circumstances guaranteed to test Japanese inscrutability.

Honda had not helped itself with the setup. The temporary platform was essentially a raised board, barely wide enough for its task, and covered by a sheet. Adding to their obvious discomfort, the four representatives were shoulder to shoulder in basic garden chairs, with not even a table between them and an audience – largely sympathetic towards Williams – keen to skewer their hosts and then push off for lunch.

The halting words of Mr Yoshitoshi Sakurai, managing director of Honda F1, were received in a stony silence accentuated by the hushed verdant surroundings. The inevitable awkward questions from the lawn were side-stepped by Sakurai-san leaning heavily on the language barrier and using the word ‘mutual’ a great deal.

The ambient temperature at that moment was around 27°C, and yet this had to be one of the chilliest F1 press conferences on record.