Honda Y2K: The Rising Sun Rises Again

Atlas F1

Honda Y2K: The Rising Sun Rises Again

by Thomas C. O'Keefe, USA

As one Formula One season gives way to the next in Suzuka, Japan, about the most exciting news in Formula One circles is also from the Pacific (wheel) Rim: the full-fledged return of Honda to Formula One as a Constructor in the Year 2000.

On the eve of the season-ending Suzuka race, Honda President Hiroyuki Yoshino announced at a luncheon for motor racing journalists that two prototypes of a Honda Formula One car will be ready by year-end and he explained the rationale for the decision as follows: "Some see [Formula One] as only risky and expensive. I deeply believe our experience in racing competition is a basic reason for Honda's success. From that pressure comes progress and it also speeds up decision-making. The real bottom line of racing is that it challenges our engineers."

While Honda engines powered the Williams and McLaren cars that won five consecutive Formula One Drivers Championships in 1987 - 1991, the only trace of that heyday is the Honda NSX, which, according to Honda's advertising, has a 3-litre V6 VTEC engine born of the Senna 1991 McLaren-Honda Formula One Championship car. Having proved conclusively their dominance in Formula One engine design, Honda left the sport at the end of the 1992 season and returned to making Civics and Accords.

The rub this time around for Honda is that the company apparently plans to become the only team in Formula One other than Ferrari to be a true Constructor, i.e. - to actually build the whole car itself, chassis and engine combined.

Honda's re-entry into Formula One as a Constructor harkens back to its very first Formula One effort in the mid-1960's, which was inauspicious at the outset but turned out to be a Triumph of the Tyros. At that time, Honda's Yoshio Nakamura (aficionados of the 1966 movie classic Grand Prix may remember Mr. Nakamura portrayed by the thinly-disguised "Izo Yamura", the head of "Yamura Motors", the quasi-Honda team from the movie), was a man with an engine in search of a chassis. Nakamura had initially planned to run a Honda engine in the then World Champion Lotus 25 chassis for 1964, but negotiations with the sometimes mercurial Colin Chapman fizzled in January 1964, leaving Honda with no choice but to build its own car and team from the ground up in what turned out to be a breathtaking seven months. The Honda factory did have the benefit of having a 1961 Formula One Cooper T53 as a basis to build up a prototype.

Initially it was a one-car team, with American Ronnie Bucknum, a 28 year-old California sports car racer who had never turned a wheel in a single-seater race car, anointed as the Honda driver. Legend has it that Bucknum was sent a Honda cap and flew to Japan to meet with Yakamura at the airport; Bucknum was supposed to wear the Honda cap so Yakamura would be able to identify him (presumably to distinguish Bucknum from the hordes of other blonde, crew-cut Californians lurking around the Tokyo airport!)

With that somewhat fragile set of components to begin with, what better rite of initiation for both car and driver could be conjured up than the punishing then-14 mile Nurburgring circuit. During practice for the German Grand Prix at Nurburgring held on August 2, 1964, the Formula One community got its first look at what Japan hath wrought: an all-white car known as the RA271 with a bright red Rising Sun painted on the scuttle just ahead of the windscreen, powered by a deafening, high-revving, 1.5-litre V12 Honda engine, mounted transversely in the rear of the chassis.

Indeed, as might be expected, the car that weekend in Germany had a cobbled together look by comparison to the sleek green and yellow Lotus-Climax's of Jim Clark and Mike Spence that had by now evolved from the Lotus 25 to the Lotus 33, the Brabham of Jack Brabham, the Ferrari's of John Surtees and Lorenzo Bandini and the BRM's of Graham Hill and Richie Ginther. The two air scoops for the engine located on either side of Bucknum's head looked like they were made out of chicken wire from the local hardware store. Imagine what it must have been like for the Twin Tinhorns of Bucknum and Honda to dip their collective toes into the fast-running Formula One waters of that time, and at Nurburgring to boot!

All things considered, it was a successful first outing at which the new kids on the block acquitted themselves well. Bucknum was placed 22nd and last on the grid after making 5 practice laps around the Ring; just to add further to the team's apprehension, a 23rd car of Dutchman Carel Godin de Beaufort did not start because of de Beaufort's fatal crash during practice. Remarkably, in a 15 lap race won by Surtees, Bucknum managed to last as long as Jack Brabham's Brabham at 11 laps until Bucknum spun in a corner with 4 laps to go for reasons that are thought to have been due to metal fatigue in the steering apparatus, not to Bucknum's driving. Even so, Bucknum's Honda finished ahead of a long list of distinguished non-finishers: Clark's Lotus 33, Bruce McLaren and Phil Hill in their Coopers and Peter Revson and Mike Hailwood in Lotus-BRM's, to name a few.

Honda skipped the next race at Austria to concentrate on development but turned up at Monza for the 1964 Italian Grand Prix, where the brute power of the V-12 (220 bhp at 11,000 rpm) could show itself, with Bucknum qualifying 10th. Indeed, Bucknum had the thundering Honda up to 5th before retiring after 12 laps due to brake problems.

As a teenager, I actually saw (and heard) Bucknum and the raucous RA271 at the third and last race Honda entered that year, the United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen on October 4, 1964. The Rising Sun was still on its scuttle but a U.S. Flag emblem was on its flanks. During Sunday morning warm-up outside of the paddock garage on the top of the hill at Watkins Glen, the grey-uniformed Honda mechanics (possibly at the request of the other teams) warmed-up the truly ear-splitting V12 outside the garage in a fenced enclosure much to the delight of the small coterie of early-risers that had sleepily wandered over from their infield camp sites. Notwithstanding the noisy prologue, the race for Bucknum came to a quiet end when the Honda succumbed to a blown head gasket and overheated after 50 laps and 115 or so miles, the Honda's longest running race to date.

In the 1965 season, the far more experienced fellow-Californian Richie Ginther, ex-Ferrari, ex-BRM, joined Bucknum at Honda and the two of them campaigned the updated RA272 in a roller coaster of a year that saw the team qualify as anchormen at the tail of the grid at Monaco in May 1965, and yet achieve Honda's finest Formula One win in Mexico by October 1965, with Ginther in first place leading flag to flag and Bucknum finishing fifth. Remember, Honda had only won its first points at a rainy and diabolical Spa earlier that season when Ginther finished sixth, so the significance of winning in Mexico only four months later cannot be overstated. For comparison, in 1998, we marveled at Eddie Jordan achieving Jordan's maiden win at Spa, after seven years in Formula One.

Honda had brought itself from obscurity to a win in less than 15 months. Interestingly, the success of the Japanese/American Honda effort that culminated in the Mexico City victory also meant success for Akron, Ohio-based Goodyear, for whom the 1965 Mexican Grand Prix was also its first Formula One win. To compete the circle, as of 1999, Goodyear is out of Formula One, just as Honda is about to go back in.

With the introduction in 1966 of the 3-litre formula, Honda had to go back to the drawing boards and was unable to capitalize immediately on the success it enjoyed at Mexico City in its 1.5-litre car in the last race of the 1965 season. Honda delayed the debut of its 3-litre RA273 V12 until the Italian Grand Prix at Monza in September 1966, and competed only in the last three races of the year. At Monza, Ginther fell victim to a tire going down and crashed. Overall, the 1966 season was without notable success in the powerful but heavy 3-litre car, Ginther doing his best again in high-altitude Mexico (where Honda's fuel injection system was an advantage), qualifying 3rd and finishing 4th, the best result of the season.

It is ironic, given the relatively disappointing 1966 season Honda had, that the quasi-Honda cars of that era are in a sense immortalized in the movie "Grand Prix", which was filmed by John Frankheimer during the 1966 Formula One season, when Honda in actuality only competed in three races. Because the script for the movie called for the Italian and British teams playing off the newcomer Japanese team, the Honda-like white cars (actually, the quasi-Honda cars posing as Japanese Yamura's were disguised ex-BRM's and ex-Clark 1964 and 1965 Lotus 25's and 33's owned by MGM and painted white with black striping) are featured in the movie in a way and to an extent they never were in the real world of mid-1960's Formula One; indeed, in the movie the Yamura and its American driver (played by James Garner) actually end up winning the 1966 Championship that Jack Brabham actually won.

The 1965 Grand Prix of Mexico (and the movie "Grand Prix") turned out to be the high water mark for Honda as a manufacturer of a Formula One car. The 1967 and 1968 seasons were basically sub-contracted to John Surtees, who threw everything he (and Lola) had at the project to deliver a winning car, but with little to show for it, except for a stunning second (and the last Honda) victory in 1967 at Monza. In a thrilling finish, Surtees just edged out Jack Brabham by .02 seconds in a hybrid car that was developed with an assist from Lola and was dubbed the "Hondola." At the end of 1968, which had produced a succession of retirements, a second in France (where teammate Jo Schlesser crashed fatally), a third at Watkins Glen and a fifth at the always-favorable Mexican Grand Prix, Honda bowed out of Formula One (except as a successful supplier of engines to other teams), not to return until these thirty years later.

So Y2K should be an exciting year in Formula One, a virtual re-enactment of "Grand Prix", with the upstart Japanese team attempting to break the stranglehold of the Italian/English Powers That Be, exemplified by Ferrari on the one hand and the McLaren/Williams teams on the other. Honda's press releases seem to suggest that they have learned their lessons from their prior experiences, both initially in the all-Japanese Bucknum/Ginther era and latterly in the Surtees era (which was an Anglo/Japanese culture clash of sorts) and have come down on the side of the earlier era, when they made their own car, lock, stock and barrel. As Mr. Yoshino of Honda said to the group of reporters prior to Suzuka this year: "The challenge of engines is not just speed, but efficiency. I think working with an organization with a different culture would be difficult. So now we are choosing to go by ourselves."

Based upon their spectacular success as an engine supplier to Formula One in the early 1990's and to Indianapolis-type cars in the late 1990's, it is a safe bet that Honda has sufficient talent and resources to make sure that this time around, as in the movies, the White Car will win.

Thomas C. O'Keefe, Esq. 1998 Atlas Formula One Journal.
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Thomas C. O'Keefe is a lawyer who practices law in the U.S. Virgin Islands and in New York. He became captivated with Formula One and visiting race-tracks after watching Jimmy Clark cross the finish line to win the Indianapolis 500 in 1965 and following his F1 career thereafter.