50 years of Honda F1 cars in pictures

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When McLaren reveal their Honda-powered MP4-30 in one week’s time a new chapter in Honda’s racing heritage will begin.

The Japanese manufacturer has an F1 habit it just can’t kick. Honda has been in and out of grand prix racing for more than five decades. It has appeared twice as a full factory entrant, and this year will begin its third stint as an engine supplier.

Honda has powered 72 grand prix victories since it first appeared in Formula One and is the sport’s fifth most successful engine manufacturer in terms of wins. Will its reunion with McLaren recapture its past glories?

1964-68: Winning in the sixties

Honda were trailblazers in the sixties, bringing a fully manufacturer-backed squad from Tokyo to a sport which in 1964 was still more than decade away from holding its first race in Asia.

Within two years they had delivered their first victory, though it came at the swansong race for the 1.5-litre engine formula. It took until the seventh round of the following season, run to new 3-litre engine rules, for Honda to debut its new V12 car. But the RA273 proved massively overweight and uncompetitive.

But John Surtees had seen what Honda was capable of in motorbike racing and was persuaded to join them for 1967. Using a new, lighter RA300 chassis developed by Lola he pipped Jack Brabham to victory at Monza in a photo finish.

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However in 1968 the team’s efforts were split between the continuation of the V12 project in the RA301 chassis and the new V8-engined RA302. Surtees had deep misgivings about the latter and refused to race it. Sadly those fears proved well-founded: Jo Schlesser drove the car at Rouen but crashed on the second lap and was killed when its magnesium bodywork exploded into flames.

The team saw out the season using the RA301. But at the end of the season Honda bowed out of F1, beginning a 15-year absence.

1983-88: Mastering the last turbo era

Formula One’s last turbo era began as a frenzied competition between different manufacturers – and ended with Honda utterly routing the competition.

Having enjoyed success in Formula Two in the early eighties, Honda moved up to F1 in 1983 with the Spirit team. Quick to recognise their potential, Frank Williams signed a deal with them which was announced at the Austrian Grand Prix, and the first Williams-Honda saw competitive action at the season finale in South Africa.

The early Honda turbos tended to supply their enormous power all in one go. Despite that, Keke Rosberg overcame these significant driveability problems – as well as fierce heat and a disintegrating track – to give Honda power its first world championship victory at Dallas in 1984.

The package really started to come good the following year. Using an estimated 1,070bhp from his V6 turbo in qualifying trim, Rosberg became the first driver to lap an F1 track at an average speed of more than 160mph when he took pole position for the British Grand Prix. Williams won the final three races of the year – and Rosberg made an ill-timed decision to leave the team.

Williams and Honda took their first championship together the following year, but Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet missed out on the drivers’ championship, which went to McLaren’s Alain Prost. Honda took note, and although Williams dominated the 1987 championship it turned out to be their last with Honda power.

1988-92: Golden years with McLaren

Honda had also begun supplying engines to Lotus in 1987, which brought the ferocious talent of Ayrton Senna to their attention. His move to McLaren alongside Prost the following year formed Formula One’s most devastatingly competitive team.

McLaren won 15 of that year’s 16 races, and even fellow Honda users Lotus didn’t get a look-in. Despite successive rules changes intended to constrain turbo power Honda’s RA168E V6 still supplied over 900bhp.

In 1989 the rule makers got rid of the turbos, but any hopes it would bring an end to McLaren-Honda’s dominance were swiftly dashed. Now providing engines exclusively for McLaren, the new 3.5-litre V10 dubbed RA109E demonstrated Honda’s capabilities were no less fearsome when applied to building normally aspirated engines.

Despite the Senna-Prost dream team turning into a nightmare, for the third year in a row both titles were won by Honda-powered contenders. McLaren extended that streak for another two years.

The competition was finally getting its act together, however. Prost, now at Ferrari, pushed Senna hard for the 1990 title, which ended with another acrimonious collision. But the following year it became clear the team faced an even greater threat from Williams, now with Renault power.

Not for the first time, pressure from within Honda dictated a change in the engine programme. For 1991 McLaren used a new V12 engine, while the old V10s went to Tyrrell. Senna had doubts, and lobbied Honda hard throughout the season to find more power from the engine to make up for its increased weight.

That proved vital in the face of a strong threat from Mansell and Williams, which Senna managed to see off in 1991. The following year, however, Williams finally had their revenge and brought Honda’s success to an end. With that the Japanese manufacturer departed F1 again.

2000-08: A hit-and-miss comeback

Honda’s third spell in Formula One straddled another two engine eras: the 3.0-litre V10s and 2.4-litre V8s. But this was the least successful of their three spells in F1, yielding a single win over nine years of competition.

Having initially returned as an engine manufacturer with BAR in 2000, Honda turned the Brackley-based team into its own full factory effort from 2006. A breakthrough win came with Jenson Button at the Hungaroring – but that proved a false dawn.

Its woefully uncompetitive 2007 car, which coincided with an idiosyncratic, largely sponsor-free ‘Earthdreams’ livery, invited derision. The team slumped to eighth in the championship and only narrowly beat Super Aguri, who were using their year-old chassis.

The struggle continued in 2008, though Rubens Barrichello claimed an inspired podium finish at a wet British Grand Prix. Ross Brawn had been recruited from Ferrari to rebuild the team, but Honda’s decision to axe the team meant they never enjoyed the fruit of his labours.

The success of the Mercedes-powered Brawn GP cars the following year hinted at what might have been: Button won the drivers’ title, and the team clinched the constructors’ crown.

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Author information

Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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36 comments on “50 years of Honda F1 cars in pictures”

  1. Awesome article, great to have Honda back in F1.

    Also, would it be worth a short mention of the Mugen-Honda engines used between 1991 and 1999 by various teams? They weren’t full works engines but they were supported by Tokyo, and Mugen is owned by the son of Soichiro Honda who since his fathers death has been a major shareholder in Honda itself.

  2. Great article and my god such great pictures. F1 cars have really taken a dive in terms of looks from the 90s onwards.

    1. It all started to go wrong when the 1st wing appeared, bah, humbug!

  3. Evil Homer (@)
    22nd January 2015, 12:15

    The front nose on the 1990 McLaren looks pretty good to me- lets stick with that hey!?

    I love these old shots as 80’s & 90’s was my era as a kid, but also enjoy the 60’s & 70’s stuff as well.

    The shot of Rosberg at Detroit is excellent – it shows how much head exposure the drivers had back then, a very upright seating positing but maybe most dangerous of all how close their feet were to the front of the car!! Still a very pure and raw era of F1- good times! ……………..bring it back!!

    1. Evil Homer (@)
      22nd January 2015, 12:24

      Also compare the 90’s cars to Rubens 2008 Honda as above- it looks like a Transfomer!!

      So before we complain about this years noses (for lack of a better term) our 2015 cars look much better to the 2008 Optimus Prime version!!

      1. OmarR-Pepper (@)
        22nd January 2015, 13:19

        @evilhorner it’s just a matter of opinion, because for me the best looking cars were the ones in 07 and 08. Full of wings!!!

        1. Just goes on to show how much opinions can vary! I liked 2014’s cars (though my favourites are 2002-2003) while I think the ugliest ones have been 07-08 *exactly* because of all those wings.

    1. @davidnotcoulthard It was Mercedes-powered…

      1. It was still designed by Honda though!

        1. But would it have been successful with the far less powerful Honda engine? Probably not.

      2. @mashiat The (majority of the) budget and chassis and original things bolted onto it apart from tyres, on the other hand………

        @hairs It’d have be closer to being on par with RBR in Melbourne, and with more budget from Honda than Brawn GP could muster what it lacked in engine power would’ve probably been made up for in the development race.

  4. I liked the Earthdreams Hondas. Just putting that out there…

    1. Me too :D, especially the black and earth one :).

    2. @deej92 I only like the 2008 version. I think it was a huge improvement.

  5. That Tyrrell-Honda was beautyful! In that era Honda had not one but two really great engines. In the search for better aerodynamics cars were getting uglier(despite some early and very unusual examples, also ugly) function over form right? that is the norm in engineering. A nice write up and excellent images, thanks!

  6. Honda also built but never raced Formula 1 cars for 1992 and 1996. The latter of which sported a fully blown diffuser. Google Honda RC101 and RC101b.

  7. Awesome pictures ! Thanks Keith ! ;)

  8. @keithcollantine: Great article and tremendous pictures. My goodness but those 80’s cars look dangerous!

    Nitpicking, I know, but this can’t be right: “In 1989 the rule makers finally got rid of the turbos, but any hopes…” as the turbos are very much back. And I’m one of the F1 Fanatics that likes them, for the record, so no complaints there.

    1. But they did get rid of them…

      1. @matt90 I don’t think the rule makers “finally” got rid of turbos in 1989. Finality lasts forever and we definitely have them back.

        But it was just a very minor point… hardly worth mentioning. Just think of me a grumpy old person!

        1. *as a* grumpy old person…

          1. As a senior citizen I prefer to think of you as a precise person.

        2. That’s only really it’s secondary definition.

  9. I’d forgotten Ruben’s got a podium in 2008! What an outstanding drive.

    1. I feel he is a very underrated driver. If he had the chance Irvine had gotten after Schumacher’s accident at Silverstone, he think he would have gotten that championship win. He was a bit old when he was driving for the Brawn in 09. He went though a lot in 94, and I feel he never was as fast as he could have been after that.

  10. My favorites were 2004 v10 Honda (BAR 006), where Button was second in the drivers. Designer Geoff Willis, who works for Mercedes now :). And this one , because it looks fantastic.

    Nice article Keith!

  11. Honda powered engine, Jenson Button driving, lack of title sponsor…
    …I’ve got an idea for the McLaren paint scheme this year.

    1. lol.. well “dreams of earth” may be?

  12. Where’s Ligier & 90’s Jordan..??

    1. @ernietheracefan Those weren’t Honda factory engine supplies, as @Mathers mentioned.

  13. The Japanese manufacturer has an F1 habit it just can’t kick.

    But why does Honda keep leaving? Even with less/no money, teams like Marussia die trying. Honda never had financial struggles, yet they kept going away from the sport despite their success.

    1. @sd “That they can’t kick” basically means that despite them leaving F1, they’ll be back in not too long. So @keithcollantine isn’t denying that Honda kept leaving.

  14. Vey nice, this car is so old. I like it.

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