Turbocharged dreams: Honda’s rollercoaster F1 story


Honda's announcement of its 2026 Aston Martin F1 engine deal is just the latest chapter in its highly eventful grand prix history – we look at those ups and downs via our archive

Ayrton Senna McLaren French GP Paul Ricard

Senna in the McLaren-Honda MP4/4

Grand Prix Photo

Few manufacturers’ relationships with grand prix racing are as idiosyncratic as Honda’s. The Japanese marque has experienced immense success, but many pitfalls too, precipitating acrimonious break-ups and mystifying exits just when the going is good – or looking imminently good.

However, hand in hand with the driving talents of Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, John Surtees, Nigel Mansell and Jenson Button, Honda has carved its name into the F1 history books.

Now with the announcement of its 2026 engine deal with F1’s coming team – Aston Martin – the automotive giant looks set for a new era of fighting at the front in grand prix racing.

Below, we chart the long and winding road of Honda’s participation in the world championship.

Swinging Sixties: Honda’s first F1 entry – and exit

John Surtees Honda 1967 Italian GP Monza

Surtees on his way to victory at Monza ’67

Getty Images

Honda first entered F1 in 1964 with the RA271. In stark contrast to the rest of the grid, largely dominated by Western Europeans and South American staff, the team was entirely populated by Japanese team members – aside from its American driver Ronnie Bucknum.

Honda’s first season with the RA271 brought little joy, but the marque returned the next year with the RA272, which Richie Ginther drove to a famous debut victory for the manufacturer at Mexico.

From the archive

Next came the RA273, which John Surtees wheeled to a podium in his first race for Honda, at Kyalami ’67, but the ’64 F1 champ soon decreed the car simply wasn’t good enough.

Surtees initiated a new project in conjunction with Lola, and Honda based its next car on the British marque’s Lola T90 IndyCar.

Thus the RA300 was born, winning first time out in the hands of Surtees by leading just one lap – the final tour of the 1967 Italian GP, the Brit clinching the victory from Jack Brabham by 0.2sec.

Honda’s ’68 effort, the RA301, was problemetic but did garner two podiums for Surtees in the three races he finished in it, before its first F1 tenure ended in tragedy.

The magnesium-skinned RA302 – which Surtees refused to drive after labelling it a “deathtrap” – viciously caught fire at Rouen on lap two of the ’69 French GP when stand-in Jean-Louis Schlesser crashed into a bank. Honda withdrew from F1 soon after.


Spirited return: the first F1 comeback

Stefan Johansson Spirit F1 team Brands Hatch 1983 Race of Champions

First competitive Spirit outing at Brands Hatch ’83 Race of Champions

Grand Prix Photo

Fifteen years after an absence from grand prix racing, Honda was back – but in not the most auspicious fashion.

The team it chose to make its turbocharged-F1 return with was the little Spirit F2 outfit, run by John Wickham.

From the archive

Having funded the F2 team in 1982 as a pseudo-Honda works effort, head office then chose the team to first test its new turbo engine in a mule car and then become the F1 team which would run it.

“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,” said Wickham.

The Spirit 201C made its debut at the ’83 Race of Champions in the hands of Stefan Johansson, but despite being a decent F1 effort was dogged by reliability issues.

The poor results had consequences – before the season was out, Honda had signed a contract to move to Williams for ’84.


First title glory: Honda tastes F1 championship success with Williams

Nigel Mansell, Williams-Honda FW11, Grand Prix of France, Circuit Paul Ricard, 06 July 1986. (Photo by Paul-Henri Cahier/Getty Images)

Williams turned to Honda in pursuit of turbo glory

Paul-Henri Cahier/Getty Images

In moving to Frank Williams’ gang, Honda had chosen a team which knew how to win.

The Didcot outfit had been reluctant to join the turbo teams, but a ban on ground effect precipitated a switch away from naturally aspirated engines.

“Nobuhiko Kawamoto [later the CEO of Honda between 1990 and ’98] quickly realised that Spirit wasn’t going to get the job done,” then-Williams technical director Patrick Head told Motor Sport.

From the archive

“By the middle of the year we had done a deal with Honda to do a full season of F1 in 1984 and it was quite a learning experience…”

As Head explains, Honda’s sporting department had a unique approach to going racing.

“The engine arrived, with no paperwork at all. I sent a message by telex saying, ‘could you please advise for a heat balance for the engine?’. I asked for heat balance and installation details. They came back, and said ‘Please design as you think.’”

After this rocky start, the floodgates soon opened.

Williams-Honda took 24 wins over the next four season, Nigel Mansell almost claiming the ’86 drivers’ crown before Nelson Piquet clinched it the next year. Soon after though, Honda announced it had decided to change the game.

“In mid-1987, Sakurai told us that ‘McLaren is going to be our lead team next year with Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna’. Honda was in love with Senna,” said Head.

“We already had a contract for 1988, but Honda said ‘That’s it, we will supply you, we’ll fulfil our contract for you, but it will be with Piquet and Nakajima’. It would have meant saying goodbye to Nigel, so it was complicated. It felt lousy because we were winning everything, beating their other team [Lotus] and being told they weren’t going to be with us next year.”


Domination years with, McLaren and Senna, then leaves F1 for second time

Ayrton Senna McLaren F1 driver 1988 Hungarian GP

Senna in a McLaren powered by Honda

Grand Prix Photo

Honda’s RA168E turbo engine was installed in McLaren’s MP4-4, believed by many to be the greatest F1 car of all time.

In the hands of the Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, the car proved devastating, winning 15 out of the 16 races in 1988, the greatest winning percentage of F1 car.

Technical director John Barnard had left for Ferrari, and the man who took over the chief designer role, Steve Nichols, explained to Motor Sport how it harnessed Honda’s power from the RA168E engine.

Related article

“We all used this as an opportunity to break out a little bit, do some of the things that we wanted to do,” he said.

“I wanted to do more, and I think other people in the team wanted to stretch their wings too. I wanted to use all the brainpower we had to take things to a different level.”

Honda and McLaren would win the title double four years straight from ’88 to ’91 before the Japanese firm left at the end of the next season, once more having made an indelible mark on F1.

“Honda had some fantastic engineers and nothing was too much trouble,” said Nichols.

“Their work ethic was phenomenal. We’d go over to Tokyo, land late at night and they’d greet us at their technical centre, ready to talk for a couple of hours, after which they’d want to go out for a drink. It wasn’t just F1, either. At 11pm the place would be absolutely buzzing, with people working on lawnmowers, outboard engines and stuff like that.”


Third return: Jordan and BAR

Damon Hill at the top of the podium with Ralf Schumacher and Jean Alesi after the 1998 Belgian Grand Prix

A Jordan 1-2 at Spa with Mugen-Honda


Six years after its second F1 exit and Honda was back – kind of. Its engine tuning division, Mugen, supplied customer engines to Jordan from 1998, with steadily increasing success.

The Silverstone squad would win Spa ’98 with Damon Hill before Heinz-Harald Frentzen mounted an unlikely title challenge the following year, ultimately finishing third.

After another season of running Mugen Hondas in 2000 Jordan, along with the recently-formed BAR team, became a works squad for the next two years.

BAR then became the sole focus in from 2003 onwards, and though results improved, with Jenson Button particularly impressive, that next win was still elusive.


BAR works takeover and third exit

2006 Hungarian GP Jenson Button

Hungary ’06 win with Button was ’00s highpoint


For 2006, Honda bought the Brackley F1 team from BAR. Results were up and down. An early podium and pole for Button was mixed and matched with various breakdowns and reliability setbacks.

Button said the team’s insatiable desire of innovation held it back.

Related article

“A lot of it was relaibility [but] it was a team that was coming up with great ideas – it was staggering. They were working on the flexi rear wing as well, as well as a front differential which was amazing under braking. You could hammer the brakes and never lock up. It was really fun to be part of a team like that that was developing so rapidly and taking the fight to the bigger teams like Ferrari and Renault.”

At Budapest, it all came good. An inspired tyre strategy and execution from Button brought the first Honda works team win in nearly forty years – also a first victory for the Brit.

However, 2007 was a disaster, the car both slow and even more unreliable than its predecessor.

Former Ferrari tech chief Ross Brawn was brought in later that season too, but the 2008 car was even worse.

After that year’s economic crisis closed in, Honda decided to cut its losses and sold the team to Brawn for a nominal price – his eponymous team would win both F1 titles with Button the following year.


Marriage made in hell: second McLaren link-up for fourth return

Alonso Mclaren breakdown

Honda and McLaren reunion was not a happy one

Grand Prix Photo

Martin Whitmarsh and Ron Dennis managed to persuade Honda to return and rekindle former McLaren glories for 2015, but the link-up proved to be a disaster.

Honda was rushed in a year earlier than it would have liked, and the Honda RA616H in the back of the MP4-31 soon proved it wasn’t up to scratch in any department.

Driver Fernando Alonso dubbed the power unit a “GP2 engine” — at the manufacturer’s home race in Suzuka — and things only slightly improved over the next couple of years.

At the end of 2017, it was announced that Honda and McLaren would part ways, with the Japanese marque moving over to power Red Bull junior team Toro Rosso as a test run for the senior squad.


Champions again at last: Red Bull title years and exit again

Honda's former Formula 1 managing director Masashi Yamamoto (left( with Marko (centre) and Verstappen

Verstappen-Red Bull years brought more Honda glory

Red Bull

Now installed in the back of a Faenza Formula 1 car, the RA618H proved an improvement on previous efforts.

From the archive

Pierre Gasly finished fourth for the team in his second race in Bahrain with seven more points finishes, and combined with team-mate Brendon Hartley things finally marked an upturn in fortunes for Honda.

In 2018 the team would score double its previous haul. The Red Bull team adopted a Honda engine too in 2019, in which Max Verstappen would take three wins. The Japanese manufacturer was a winner again at last.

The Dutchman snared two more victories in 2020, before coming of age in 2021. Engaging in a titanic title battle with Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton, Verstappen won ten races on his way to the drivers’ title.

Honda had announced it would withdraw from F1 at the end of 2021, but ended up turning back on its decision and extending its commitment, with engines badged HRC in a semi-customer arrangement. Honda, Red Bull and Verstappen would dominate in 2022, taking both titles, and have continued doing so in 2023.


The future’s bright with Aston Martin for ‘fifth’ go at F1

Fernando Alonso leaves Aston Martin F1 pit garage

Honda will link-up with Aston Martin in 2026

Aston Martin

On May 24 2023 Aston Martin announced that Honda would be its engine supplier – once again the Japanese brand will power a full works effort.

Related article

“The biggest key factor for this decision for us this time around was the direction that the new 2026 regulations is facing towards,” said Honda Racing Corporation boss Koji Watanabe.

“Which is moving towards carbon neutrality. And that direction or that was matched with our company’s goal moving into the future.

“I believe the technology for electrification would be useful for us in mass manufacturing EV vehicles in the future. Also, the 2026 regulations to be newly installed would obligate us to go 100% towards carbon-neutral fuel.”

Honda looks set to aim for F1 glory for years to come.