Honda and F1 – remember the 1980s history

As people continue to chortle and poke at Honda’s poor track record on its return to F1, supplying hybrid powerplants to McLaren, it is worth remembering the history of Honda’s involvement in the last turbo era.
Honda returned to F1 in the Summer of 1983 with a V6 twin turbo engine that was initially supplied to Spirit Racing, who had been the lead Honda team in F2. The engine was an all in house effort, with all ancillaries farmed out to Honda sister companies. The engine was powerful, but that was about the only thing it had going for it. Williams, needing a turbo engine desperately, soon signed on to become the lead Honda team in F1, leaving Spirit out in the cold for 1984. (The 1983 Honda engine installation for the interim Williams car was designed totally by Williams, Honda having no idea about heat rejection or ancillary positioning in a car).
In 1984, the Honda engine was powerful, but overweight, with bad throttle lag, and a poor power curve that made Honda-powered cars difficult to drive. There were also questions about engine and chassis rigidity. Keke Rosberg won in a Williams-Honda at Dallas, but that was a fluke win, with all of the faster rivals retiring their cars due to collision damage. The extreme heat of the race caught out a number of drivers, but Rosberg, equipped with a cooling system in his helmet, kept his car on the circuit.
Elsewhere, the cars would qualify well but usually go backwards or retire in races, as the engine’s inconsistently high fuel consumption made it difficult to even get to the end of some races. Rosberg ran out of fuel in one race, coasting to a halt in the pit lane in front of none other than Nobuhiko Kawamoto of Honda, who was visiting for the weekend.
Honda ended 1984 with one lucky win, a couple of podiums, and little else. The engine was regarded by most observers as crude, and uncompetitive compared to rival engines from TAG, Renault and BMW.
For the first half of 1985, nothing much changed. Williams had a new all-carbon car, but the drivers still found the car difficult to drive because of the engine’s bad throttle lag and power delivery. The breakthrough came at Detroit in the early Summer, when Honda debuted a completely new engine design, with a seriously stiffer block, all new internals, and re-designed control systems. The drivers found an engine in the back instead of an on-off switch, and results soon came. Rosberg set a new record by qualifying faster than 160mph at Silverstone, and Williams began winning races. The engine was now more powerful than the Renault and TAG engines, with only BMW beating it on peak power.
In 1986, Honda raised the bar further with the new engine now boasting lower fuel consumption than rivals, which allowed higher race boost and horsepower. By now, Honda was leading the engine supply field, and would do so through the turbo and normally aspirated eras until 1992, when it retired after its V12 normally aspirated design proved overweight and insufficiently competitive.
Highlights included the famous “steamroller” season of 1988, when Honda produced an incredibly frugal engine that allowed McLaren to build a dominating turbo car, winning 15 out of the 16 races.
So…when people write off Honda today in F1, we have to remember that it took 2 years from their debut in F1 in the 1980s before they produced a competitive engine. However, within 12 months they were in the lead, and stayed there for a long time.

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