How Honda planned to save its first attempt to crack F1

Honda's first Formula 1 foray promised much, but despite winning in its first full season, it wasn't as a regular front-runner. Here's how it planned to improve, as told to Autosport's DAVID PHIPPS - under a willow tree - in our 9 February 1968 issue

Honda came into Formula 1 racing at the 1964 German Grand Prix, and achieved its first success when Richie Ginther won the 1965 Mexican GP. In 1967, John Surtees joined the team and after a series of disappointments in the early part of the season scored a surprise victory in the Italian GP.

To find out what we can expect from Honda in 1968, I talked to Honda F1 manager Yoshio Nakamura and John Surtees under Jack Nucci's willow tree in Kew, a suburb of Johannesburg.

DAVID PHIPPS What are your plans for this year as far as F1 is concerned? Are you going to carry on with the existing car or will you have a new one?

YOSHIO NAKAMURA We will have a new car.

DP When will it be ready?

YN Spanish GP.

DP What about the Race of Champions?

YN It may be ready by then, but I cannot be sure.

DP Will it have a new engine?

YN Yes, it will be a new engine, but it will have quite a lot in common with the existing engine. It will still be a V12, with a central power take off.

JOHN SURTEES It's basically a development of the existing engine. It's 90% new but it's not a completely new engine.

DP Are you making the chassis in Japan or in England?

YN Chassis in England. Engine and gearbox in Japan.

JS There are a lot of good reasons for this. During the past year we have concentrated on getting a team together that can build and maintain cars. We have more equipment in our workshops in England, and we have taken on more staff. And in England there are a lot of sub-contractors - for instance Arch Motors, who make the wishbones and chassis components - who are just not available in Japan.

So the cars will be produced in England by a combined team of Japanese and English personnel who are basically employed by Honda. The existing car was built at Slough using both Honda and Lola facilities.

"It has been a very on-and-off programme, and that except for Mr Nakamura none of the people associated with the F1 programme in the past are involved in racing any more" John Surtees

DP This suggests there is considerable integration between Honda and Lola.

JS No, not as such, but they are doing a certain amount of work for us. We have an arrangement on development between Honda and Team Surtees, which is a management company, and in turn between Team Surtees and Lola. There is nothing unusual about this; it's the same sort of procedure we have followed in the past on the development of sportscars.

DP So in fact you sub-contract to Lola?

JS If we want something made we go to the best people - and this often means the people who will do the job in the shortest time. You must remember that, although Honda has been in racing since 1964, it has been a very on-and-off programme, and that except for Mr Nakamura (below, left) none of the people associated with the F1 programme in the past are involved in racing any more.

YN The distance from Tokyo to Europe is a major problem. Engines and gearboxes can be sent on any plane, but there are very few planes that can carry complete cars. And even engines and gearboxes can get lost in transit. Last year some shipments were lost for weeks on end.

DP Who is the designer of the new car as far as chassis and suspension is concerned?

YN A combination of Eric Broadley [at Lola], myself and Mr Sano. Mr Kume, who designed the [dominant] 1966 Formula 2 engine, mainly designed the V12.

DP Is the engine running yet and will it have Honda fuel injection?

YN It is not running yet, but it should be ready soon. Yes, it will have Honda fuel injection.

DP What are Mr Honda's reasons for going motor racing?

YN Mainly to show people that Honda is a car manufacturer as well as a motorcycle manufacturer.

DP Do you have a programme extending several years or do you work from year to year?

YN At present we have a two-year programme.

JS A minimum of two years. Last year things did not go quite as well as planned, mainly because of interference from the production programme. Normally there is no racing department at Honda; the racing team is just an offshoot of Honda R&D, and the people who design racing cars are the same people who design production cars.

A company has to be commercially successful. Honda believes in putting the lessons learned in racing into its production cars as soon as possible. I think Honda makes more use of its experience - sometimes to the detriment of the racing itself - than any other company I know.

DP How many cars are you planning to run in 1968?

YN Two. The second driver will be Chris Irwin.

JS It's very important that racing teams have the right sort of spirit, particularly when they involve people from different parts of the world. Fortunately I have been concerned with foreign teams for a long while, and so up to a point I can take the rough with the smooth, but we don't want to promise somebody else something which we cannot fulfil.

"Some of these companies have withdrawn from racing because they consider they haven't had their full money's worth out of it, but this is mainly because they haven't utilised racing properly" John Surtees

Once we are certain the cars are developing correctly and going according to plan we will run two cars, but for the first three races we won't have the material available to run more than one. It is also important to take on a driver who is reasonably acceptable from a personality point of view, and can be trusted not to do anything silly.

But with a programme as big as this, it would be quite wrong to rely entirely on one driver. I'm trying to cut down on the amount of management I was involved in last year, in order to concentrate on driving and development work, and I'm also concentrating on fewer classes of racing, but there are still many occasions when we shall need an additional test driver as well as a second race driver.

DP Would you like to have a Japanese driver in the team?

YN Yes, I would, but it is very difficult for Japanese drivers to get sufficient experience to take part in F1 racing.

DP Do you have any plans to build a four-wheel-drive car?

YN No. I don't think 4WD is necessary yet, and if we were to build a 4WD car I would also want it to have four-wheel steering. If the circuits remain the same as present, I think a 2WD car will still be competitive.

JS Basically the more you can tramline a corner, and by this I mean cutting out drift and playing with the throttle to counteract understeer or oversteer, the faster you will go: if you have a 4WD system which enables you to do this you may well be faster than in a 2WD car.

But we can go a great deal faster than we have been doing without going over to 4WD. We have a tremendous amount to gain on engine characteristics, and we have a lot to gain in the roadholding department. I feel we should sort these two things out before we even think about 4WD.

DP Do you think there is any possibility of getting better performance out of single-seaters with aerodynamics - possibly with wide bodies or with spoilers?

YN No. Aerodynamically 60% of the wind resistance of a single-seater comes from the tyres, so there is not very much that can be done with bodywork.

DP How many people are actively engaged on the Honda F1 project?

YN The total, in Japan and England, is about 20.

DP Has Firestone's cutback affected you very much?

JS No. I have always worked on a different basis from other people, so I'm not really affected. I give my full efforts, they give theirs, and all the time that mutual confidence exists our contract just rolls on. There have been some technical problems from the Honda point of view, because most of Firestone's development has been done with lighter cars, but from now on our car should not be much heavier than anybody else's.

DP How do you feel about people like BP pulling out of racing?

JS I think it's a great mistake because - quite apart from the promotional benefits to be gained from racing - it must be a good thing for an oil company to work with firms which have a large production potential. Who can say what racing is worth? People like BP talk about £500,000 being a lot of money, and it is to you and me, but to them it is only a very small percentage of their total advertising budget.

Some of these companies have withdrawn from racing because they consider they haven't had their full money's worth out of it, but this is mainly because they haven't utilised racing properly. They haven't exploited their successes, and they haven't made the most of people they had under contract. This is not the fault of the racing teams, but of the advertising and publicity people employed by the fuel companies.

DP If existing sponsors continue to pull out, how can new sponsors be persuaded to put money into motor racing?

JS It's mainly a question of getting the message across. Very few people are aware of the following motor racing has nowadays, and nobody seems to be doing anything to publicise it. Ford is obviously aware of it and, although I do not agree with certain aspects of its programme, I have an awful lot of time for the fact that it at least took the initiative and got involved in motor racing.

As far as bringing in more money is concerned, I think the Press has a big part to play. All that is necessary is to give credit where it is due, and not to have such a purist attitude about the finances of motor racing. This in turn should help the Press by bringing in more advertising.

"If there was internal competition between two or more Japanese firms there would be no question of easing off. It was internal competition which kept the motorcycle people hard at it" John Surtees

DP I think this needs putting to the mass media - to newspapers and television.

JS Yes. The trouble is that British newspapers and British television companies don't know anything about motor racing, and thus tend to steer clear of it. They also tend to underestimate the intelligence of their readers and viewers. Television and all media of publicity are vitally important.

DP Can you see any other Japanese teams coming into F1?

YN I have heard some rumours, but nothing definite.

JS I would like to think they were. It would help us a great deal if they did. If there was internal competition between two or more Japanese firms there would be no question of easing off. It was internal competition which kept the motorcycle people hard at it.

DP Is there any possibility of anyone making a two-stroke engine for F1?

YN I don't think so. Personally I think there is more future in the rotary engine, and possibly in gas turbines.

2020 hindsight

By Kevin Turner

Surtees did indeed start the 1968 season with the previous year's RA300, but the updated version, the RA301, was ready for the second round of the championship in Spain.

Unfortunately, the car was beset with poor reliability, though Surtees did manage a second place in the French GP and third at the United States GP. The 1964 world champion finished eighth in the drivers' standings, but by then the project was doomed.

Against Surtees' advice, Honda had run the new air-cooled, magnesium-skinned RA302 for Jo Schlesser at the French GP. On lap three at Rouen, Schlesser had crashed and the Frenchman perished in the subsequent fire. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Surtees continued to refuse to drive the car, arguing it was not yet ready.

Honda decided to withdraw from F1 at the end of the season, while Surtees moved to BRM before building his own F1 cars. Although Honda would return to dominate F1 in the 1980s as an engine supplier with Williams and subsequently McLaren, it didn't add a third victory as a constructor until Jenson Button won the 2006 Hungarian GP (below) in the RA106.

After its latest withdrawal in 2008 and salvation by Ross Brawn, the re-named Brawn team went on to win the world championship in 2009 with Jenson Button before being sold to Mercedes.

Honda made a high-profile return to F1 as an engine partner to McLaren in 2015, but the relationship was doomed from the start by poor performance and constant reliability problems, leading McLaren to extricated itself early from the deal in 2017.

Facing a crossroads, Honda then powered Toro Rosso in 2018 before signing an agreement with sister team Red Bull for 2019, which yielded three wins at the Red Bull Ring, Hockenheim and Interlagos.

Previous article Brazil 2012: The race that could have changed an F1 nearly-man's career
Next article Ranking the 10 best 'point-less' F1 races