Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Red Bull Ring, 2019

After a tough start, Honda’s fourth F1 era continued their race-winning legacy

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Honda’s second spell in Formula 1, when it dominated year after year with Williams and Honda, was always going to be a tough legacy for its latest return to live up to.

The announcement yesterday that they will leave at the end of next year means their fourth era in F1 won’t recreate that success.

They can, however, lay claim to the feat of having won races in all four of their spells in the world championship. Here’s how they did it.

1964-68: Winning works team

Ronnie Bucknum, Honda, Nurburgring, 1964
Honda made their F1 debut at the Nurburgring in 1964

The arrival of the Asian car manufacturer into a largely European-based championship in the sixties was highly unusual and drew much speculation in the months before the first Honda F1 car appeared at a race.

Richie Ginther, Honda, Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, 1965
Ginther scored Honda’s first win the following year
The RA271 was developed at Honda’s new Suzuka test track. Built to the 1.5-litre normally aspirated engine rules of the time, it was the only V12 to compete during this era.

Ronnie Bucknum gave the car its debut at the Nurburgring Nordschleife in 1964. The following year he was joined by Richie Ginther as Honda expanded to a two-car operation.

In the 1965 season finale at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, the last race of the 1.5-litre era, Ginther used the grunt of his V12 to superb effect in the high altitude, scoring Honda’s breakthrough win.

For 1966, when new rules allowing engines of up to three litres arrived, Honda relocated from their original base in the Netherlands to Slough, outside London in the United Kingdom. Their first car for the new rules was both late and hugely overweight.

In mid-1967 a new car was introduced. The RA300 was more than slightly inspired by Lolas of the time, so much so that it was nicknamed the ‘Hondola’. Nonetheless it was massively lighter than its predecessor.

Jo Schlesser, Honda, Rouen, 1968
Honda left following Schlesser’s death in 1968
John Surtees scored an astonishing victory with it in its first race at Monza. Jim Clark dropped back with a loss of fuel on the final lap, and Surtees beat Jack Brabham to the finishing line by a nose.

The following year Honda introduced two new cars. The RA301 was a conventional evolution of its race-winning predecessor. The RA302 was a more radical beast, featuring an air-cooled V8 engine and magnesium skin. Surtees declared the latter was not ready to race after testing it, so Honda entrusted the car to debutant Jo Schlesser for the French Grand Prix at Rouen.

In dreadful conditions, Schlesser crashed and was killed, the magnesium body fuelling a huge fire. Honda saw the season out, but withdrew at the end of the year.

John Surtees, Jack Brabham, Monza, 1967
Surtees scored Honda’s second win in thrilling fashion

1983-1992: Honda’s period of dominance

Stefan Johansson, Spirit, Brands Hatch, 1983
Honda made their first F1 return with the tiny Spirit team

Honda returned to Formula 1 halfway through the ‘turbo era’. Renault had introduced its novel 1.5-litre blown engine in 1977, won with it in 1979, and by 1982 Ferrari had become the first turbo-powered champions.

Nigel Mansell, Williams, Silverstone, 1987
Honda won their first world championships with Williams
The following year Honda dipped a toe back in the F1 waters with the Spirit outfit. This was a precursor to teaming up with Williams the following year.

Their early engines were powerful but somewhat binary in the delivery of their awesome grunt. Keke Rosberg took a Williams-Honda to victory at Dallas in their first year together, but this was very much a triumph of man over machine – not to mention fearsome heat and a crumbling track surface.

The package came good the following year and by the end of the season Rosberg and team mate Nigel Mansell had the cars to beat. Williams won the constructors’ championship with Honda power the following year, but the drivers’ title eluded them, as Mansell and new team mate Nelson Piquet fought each other and lost out to Alain Prost’s McLaren-TAG Porsche.

In 1987 Honda powered both Williams and Lotus, linking up with Ayrton Senna at the latter. He conjured two wins from a package which was clearly inferior to the Williams, which took the constructors’ title again, while Piquet clinched the drivers’ crown.

Ayrton Senna, Lotus, Monaco, 1987
Senna impressed Honda at Lotus…
Nonetheless Honda saw the opportunity for better things, and informed Williams they would take their engines elsewhere for 1988: McLaren. With Senna arriving to join Prost, one of the most formidable teams F1 has ever seen was assembled. They won all bar one of the races, while Piquet never looked a threat in his Lotus, who lost their Hondas at the end of the year.

While the MP4/4 car been rightly lauded as one of the greatest F1 cars ever, Honda’s achievement the following year was also remarkable. Despite a wholesale change in the engine regulations which saw 1.5-litre turbos banned and 3.5-litre normally aspirated engines introduced, they hardly skipped a beat, and their potent new V10 sustained their championship dominance with McLaren.

As if not content with one change of engine format, Honda produced another all-new engine for 1991 – a V12 (Tyrrell secured a supply of Honda’s previous-generation V10s). By now they were under serious pressure from Williams-Renault, but Senna saw off the threat from Mansell. For the fifth year in a row a Honda-powered driver won the championship, and they took their sixth constructors’ title on the bounce.

Flushed with a success, it was to little surprise that in mid-1992, with Williams and Renault dominating the championship, Honda called time on their F1 programme.

Ayrton Senna, McLaren, Adelaide, 1989
…and joined them at McLaren, where they formed one of F1’s most potent combinations

2000-08: Largely unsuccessful V10 return

By the time Honda returned to Formula 1 engine sizes had been reduced to 3.0 litres. Jordan had won races in 1998 and 1999 with customer Mugen-Hondas, but Honda chose rivals British American Racing for their return to F1 in 2000. Jordan joined them the following year.

Jenson Button, Honda, Hungaroring, 2006
Honda’s third spell in F1 yielded a single win
But after rival Toyota arrived with a full works entry in 2002, Honda began thinking about a return to running a factory squad. With a ban on tobacco advertising looming, Honda opted to take over the British American Tobacco-owned team for 2006.

The move paid off quickly: Jenson Button climbed from 14th on the grid to win superbly in Hungary. But the team’s 2007 car was a disaster – so much so that offshoot team Super Aguri, running what was effectively a 2006 Honda, were a genuine threat.

The situation barely improved in 2008 but the Ross Brawn-run team had big plans for the coming change in aerodynamic rules. The 2009 car ultimately proved to be a gem, but it never carried the Honda name: The manufacturer pulled the plug amid the financial downturn at the end of 2008. Brawn took over the team, which sensationally won the 2009 titles, then sold it to Mercedes.

2015-21: Tough start to hybrid era

Honda reunited with McLaren for 2015 return – but split two years later

Four-and-a-half years passed between Honda announcing its third departure from F1 and declaring its decision to return. But having bowed out as a full constructor, in 2013 the manufacturer revealed plans to revive its tremendously successful relations with McLaren, as an engine supplier.

The reunion proved a disaster. McLaren staggered to ninth in the constructors’ championship and star driver Fernando Alonso embarrassment the manufacturer by describing the unit as a “GP2 engine” during their home race.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Red Bull Ring, 2019
Verstappen gave Honda their first hybrid win in 2019
A modest improvement followed in their second season, but an extensive redesign of the engine for 2017 sent the team back to square one. Their patience exhausted, McLaren severed the deal. Honda’s humiliation was doubled as, after agreeing terms to supply Sauber with engines, a management team at their new customer led to the deal being torn up.

However Red Bull were eyeing alternatives to their Renault engine supply, and for 2018 agreed terms for Honda to provide power units to their junior team. Red Bull liked what they say: Pierre Gasly took fourth in Bahrain, the second race for Toro Rosso-Honda.

Red Bull switched to Honda engines in 2019 and the decision was soon vindicated. Honda’s first win of its fourth F1 era was scored by Max Verstappen at the Red Bull Ring. He followed it up with two more victories by the end of the year.

The team failed to close the gap to the dominant Mercedes in the following winter, but Verstappen was first to beat the Mercedes to victory in 2020 at Silverstone. Astonishingly, Gasly pinched a win in unusual circumstances at Monza at the beginning of September.

But by that time Honda had already put Red Bull on notice that they were considering their future in the sport. Later in the month they confirmed the decision had been taken to cancel its F1 programme again, in order to pour its resources into developing more environmentally-friendly engine technologies.

Like Surtees before him, Gasly scored an incredible Honda-powered victory at Monza, for AlphaTauri

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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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17 comments on “After a tough start, Honda’s fourth F1 era continued their race-winning legacy”

  1. I’d supported BAR-Honda when I started watching F1 and I can remember how happy I was to see Button’s win in Hungary. That was a highlight in F1 for me, seeing my favourite team win. And even though they were poor, I’m still fond of the 07/08 Hondas too. I like to think of the Brawn BGP as an unofficial ‘RA109’.

    I was happy to hear they were coming back with McLaren and even if the performances were woeful I really wanted them to succeed. Though as I tended to favour Red Bull more after Brawn sold up to Mercedes, I was even happier to see the emergence of Red Bull-Honda. Verstappen’s win, vindicating the return and showing the engine was worth it was emotionally amazing, and I’ll admit to getting tearful at Gasly’s AlphaTauri taking the second win for a Honda powered team.

    I’m still fond of McLaren, and I’ll always support Red Bull either way, but seeing Honda leave again certainly saddens me. From a personal perspective, they’ve powered my favourite teams and have been part of my happiest memories of F1 and I doubt I’ll have that emotional or nostalgic connection with another again. Sad fan that I am!

  2. I never understood why Honda is revered as an engine manufacturer. They had the unbelievable good fortune to be carried by Williams and Mclaren in the 80’s and put their name along side legends like Prost, Senna, Piquet and Mansell.
    In the same period one could argue that the Lotus-Renault package was far stronger than the Lotus-Honda one.
    Every once in a while an engine drags an average car to improbable triumphs and to my knowledge never achieved that. Many cases in point come to mind:
    1981 Ferrari power gave Villeneuve 2 victories in a dog of a car.
    1985-1986 BMW power made Benetton a race winner.
    1994 Ferrari V12 made the 412T2 a race winner and the class of the field in power tracks. They got pole in Hockenheim and Monza while being 2 seconds of the pace in the twisty Jerez.
    1997-1999 Mercedes power was easily the class of the field but for some reason Newey gets all the credit for the silver arrows successes
    2001 BMW powered Williams made one of the best Ferraris of all time the F2001 look slow on the straights.
    2003 Ferrari won the championsip simply by winning on every power sensitive track: Austria, Canada, Silverstone, Monza, Indianapolis, Suzuka.
    2005 Mercedes Mclaren hit 372,6 km/h in Monza and was a rocketship on the straights.
    The V8 era never produced a stand out engine
    2014-2016 Mercedes power domination was so complete it made every one else look ridiculous
    2020 Mercedes again far ahead.

    1. @philby the thing is, you are saying that “Ferrari power gave Villeneuve 2 victories in a dog of a car”, but one of those victories came at Monaco – a circuit where a power advantage is normally considered to have pretty negligible benefits.

      Moreover, both Piquet and Jones initially were running ahead of Gilles in that race – the former having outqualified him and the latter passing Gilles on track – and it was only an accident for Piquet and a loss of fuel pressure for Jones that allowed Gilles to take the win in that race. I wouldn’t say it was a case of the engine in particular lifting Ferrari’s performance in that race – it was more a combination of Gilles being something of a specialist at Monaco, coupled with mechanical issues and errors by other drivers, that allowed Gilles to take victory there.

      The irony is that, back in 1981, the two races where Gilles took victory were two of the slower and twistier circuits that season, those being Monaco and Jarama. When you look at Ferrari’s performance at the power sensitive tracks of Hockenheim or Monza in 1981, they were less competitive than expected in both races, even though their power meant they had originally been expected to be more competitive than they were.

      Similarly, although Ferrari had been reasonably competitive at Silverstone, another quite power sensitive track at the time, those watching had been noting that both Ferrari drivers were having to drive on the ragged edge to get that performance in qualifying. Jones did later comment that, when he was following Gilles in the opening stages of the race, he was thinking to himself it was a question of when, not if, Gilles would crash, as Gilles was really pushing his luck – and, indeed, it was only a few laps before Gilles spun himself out of the race.

  3. Interesting to see that just a day later, Honda reaffirm their commitment to Indy Car with an extension of their contract. Obviously Indy Car is a much more economical prospect, and the move to Hybrid in 2023 potentially puts Honda in a good position against Chevrolet given the amount of technology transfer that they should be able to achieve.

    1. Obviously Indy Car is a much more economical prospect, and the move to Hybrid in 2023 potentially puts Honda in a good position against Chevrolet …

      Honda’s departing at the end of 2021 means they will be a year behind in hybrid technology compared to the power unit manufacturers who stayed in F1. Since Chevrolet aren’t in F1 then it probably doesn’t matter that much.

    2. @eurobrun IndyCar might be introducing a hybrid system, but the current plan is for that to be a standardised system that the series will supply to those engine designers – so the potential for technology transfer is rather marginal.

    3. All Hondas are not the same @eurobrun, US Honda is a pretty separate and different organisation. The F1 Honda has just been a perfect example of how not to do F1. They started off with a lot of apprentices, in Japan, as a development thing, and as an engine supplier which is all massive cost and no prize money or sponsorship and not much exposure.

      And now just when they’ve learned the lessons and nearly caught up, at last… they quit. They must have lots of brilliant engineers, but at the board level they have no clue whatsoever.

      They seem to be blissfully unaware that Renault and Mercedes F1 teams are not Renault and Mercedes factory teams, they’re F1 teams in a different country that carry their branding and absolutely mint it with exposure, while getting everything paid for by Liberty and sponsors. But Honda had to be soooo Japanese in Sakura, while Mercedes have 19 nationalities in F1 Valley.

      1. @zann I would say that there are some aspects of your post I’d disagree with, as some of those points have been debated or disputed.

        The comment about starting off “with a lot of apprentices” is not entirely surprising, as it has been part of Honda’s corporate culture that motorsport activities should also be seen as a development opportunity for younger staff. That said, I believe that Darren Heath, the photographer who did spark some of those comments about the number of apprentices at Honda’s engine division, did later tone down his comments – which some have taken as a sign that he was perhaps a little wide of the mark with his initial assessment.

        Equally, you comment about Honda “being so Japanese in Sakura”, but Honda were prepared to call on outside consultants. The ex-Ferrari engineer Gilles Simon was hired as an external consultant from 2013 to 2017, and whilst Honda did not explicitly confirm it, Honda are widely believed to have consulted Ilmor Engineering after 2017, along with reportedly targeting a number of ex-Mercedes HPE engineers (and there was also the factory that Honda had in Milton Keynes to support their F1 programme).

  4. Ben Rowe (@thegianthogweed)
    3rd October 2020, 21:57

    I’m no fan of Verstappen and usually don’t even like his off track personality, but I really like that picture. The way he’s pointing to the engine supplier and showing that he is clearly happy with them with the progress they have made. That picture shows a lot. Such a shame honda have announced this right after a race where they had a race that had more of their engines cars finish in the points than any other supplier! It also must have been quite some time since Honda had 4 has in the points.

  5. Honda were only dominant in the late 80s. Although they won titles in 90 and 91 these were hardly dominant seasons. 1990 was decided in Honda’s favour when Senna deliberately ran into Prost at Suzuka. And early season teething problems with the FW14 meant Honda lucked into the 1991 win.

  6. People need to understand that history is history. The late 80s and early 90s were such a different time with different people running things at Honda, Mclaren, F1, and the FIA. Their legacy of winning is stuck back 30 years ago, and their modern, recent legacy is that of quitting. Turning their back on obvious progress and and the potential to succeed at a consistent level. Whether is was what turned into the BGP-001 or what their current engine program could achieve after such substantiation progress.

    They check all the boxes for what ifs and not for winning. Hopefully this time they’re done for good, and won’t leave teams, staff, sponsors, suppliers, etc. in limbo for now the second time in 12 years.

    1. Let’s not forget honda dominated, yes, in the late 80s and early 90s, but they only won titles then, they didn’t win any title before or after.

  7. I think Red Bull pull out of F1 now.

    They are there to compete for championships and haven’t been able to since 2014 because of a power deficit.

    Now they’ll be waiting until 2026 to possibly get on even terms again and even then nothing to guaranteed.

    They’re not going to sink $500 million per year in RBR just to make up the numbers until 2026.

    RBR are just going to be a customer to Renault they are in F1 to win a championship themselves.

    They have no hope of winning a championship being a customer of Renault.

    1. Yes, clearly Red Bull cannot possibly win as a Renault engine customer.

      1. Indeed, I find this reasoning from some people silly that you can only win as a manufacturer, do we have much evidence lately with mercedes unbeatable and being a manufacturer? And also with ferrari being the closest competitor in 2017 and 2018.

        If not for mercedes’ crazy dominance, red bull would be perfectly capable of winning with a decent engine, even without being a manufacturer.

      2. Renault won’t forget the damage RBR did to the Renault brand a few years back with.

        Renault will supply an engine to RBR if forced, but there’s too much bad blood for it to become a championship winning combination. They’d have to build an engine to RBR’s specifications which won’t happen.

        Honda wouldn’t let Alonso drive a car with their engine at Indy.

  8. Disappointing to see Honda leave. This spells bad news all round for the sport, which is always better when manufactures are represented.

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