Honda's after-hours F1 project
- Rainer Nyberg, Mattijs Diepraam
- 8W Autumn 2001 issue
- Honda - Honda: How It All Started, by Thilo Figaj
- Jos Verstappen - Dutch courage: the unfulfilled promise of Jos Verstappen, by Dan Moakes
Jos Verstappen's promising winter-testing runs in the Dallara-penned Honda F1 of 1999 was not the first time Honda's in-house racing department tried to make a comeback into GP racing with a chassis of their own. Although to be fair to the 1992-'93 'After hours' project, it was never on as a serious comeback attack.
During September 1992 it became official that Honda would leave Formula 1 at the end of that season. The fabulous V12 engine that Honda had provided McLaren with, was in effect 'too good' for Honda. McLaren found the Honda bale-out a bitter pill to swallow. The Honda Motor Company President and CEO at the time, Nobuhiko Kawamoto - a former Honda Racing engineer himself - had the view that McLaren never understood Honda's motivation for being in F1. McLaren was there purely to win races, while Honda was there for the challenging spirit. Their main aim was always to train engineers. And after five consecutive Formula One World Driver Championship titles during the years 1987-'91, their engineers now clearly needed a new challenge. They re-focused on the IndyCar series and Honda produced a neat turbo V8. This would - of course - also become a winner. And a dominant one also, as recently Gil de Ferran took Honda's sixth consecutive drivers title in that series.
During the time Honda was wrapping up their involvement in Formula 1 during 1992, some of the Honda engineers took on a different challenge. To motivate their engineers Honda Motor Company encouraged them to do some 'personal projects' in their spare time, with a part of the budget for the Research & Development division set aside for such projects. And so the chassis people at R&D came up with the idea to design and construct a F1-regulation car! They even got the budget to do so, but it would still be without official sanction and a strictly 'after hours' spare-time affair. They started the design mid-season 1992, after which Nobuhiko Kawamoto admitted the existence of the car in October of that year.
This first car, the RC100, was shown to selected media in February 1993. It was a handsome but straight-forward affair. The design was influenced by several of the current crop of cars at the time. Mainly the lines of Footwork FA13 and Lotus 107 were visible. It also featured the powerful Honda RA122E/B V12 engine and also a 6-speed Honda semi-auto transmission. It didn't use active suspension. The RC100 was reported to have been used for crash-testing purposes later in the month and it passed the FISA test. So should Honda have wanted, the car was now actually eligible to race legally in 1993. A second car, RC101, was built for testing purposes.
So who would test the car? Honda's favorite son of course, 'Naka-san'. Satoru Nakajima had been a multiple champion in the local Japanese Formula 2 series during the early and middle part of the 1980s. He dominated the years 1981-'86, with five titles out of six, all with Honda V6 power.
Clearly without anything more to prove in the local series Satoru was rewarded by Honda with a GP drive for 1987 alongside another of Honda's favorite sons - Ayrton Senna. Satoru would endure five seasons at this level - courtesy of Honda - before finally retiring after the 1991 season. He drove well on faster circuits but unfortunately there are not enough of such in the F1 championship. He never made it to the podium, his best results a 4th at Silverstone during his first season and a similar 4th during freak conditions at Adelaide in 1989.
Very little is known about the testing done by Nakajima for Honda's R&D group during 1993 and 1994. The first public airing came at Suzuka in January 1994. For this occasion a third car had been built, the RC101B, and this was proudly displayed by Nakajima. This car was a developed version of the two previous cars. Both RC100 and RC101 are reported to have been destroyed during crash-tests. The RC101B might still be in existence and stored somewhere in the R&D department.
After six consecutive CART driving titles during 1996-2001 Honda has announced that they will cancel their CART programme after the 2002 season, meaning that they are again in need of a fresh challenge. And they have already embarked on that - since the 2000 season they are back in Formula One. Nobuhiko Kawamoto originally planned the return to be a 100% Honda affair, with both the chassis and the engine à la the 'after hours' project. But Kawamoto was ousted from the Honda precidency in 1998 and the new CEO Hiroyuki Yoshino - who actually was the first non-racer to run the company - changed this, instead making an agreement with British American Tobacco to supply the new Honda V10 engine to British American Racing in 2000.
Just before he stepped down from the Honda presidency, Nobuhiko Kawamoto said, "It was the determination of our young engineers that prompted Honda to start serious consideration of returning to F1 racing. In reaching our 50th anniversary we consider this a new challenge for the next generation. We hope to respond to the enthusiastic expectations of many motor sport fans through our involvement in both Formula 1 and CART Indy series." In December, 1998 Nobuhiko Kawamoto was honored with the title of Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (K.B.E.) by Queen Elizabeth II.
The once dominant Honda has so far achieved little with their new challenge, but there is no doubt that they will responding to the new challenge and soon be winning again. May we remember that the turbo V6 and also the CART V8 were also slow starters?