Not too many trips around the Sun have been completed since I noted in a Pitpass article "What light from yonder Honda breaks?", as yet another Swiss-watch assembly of glorious engineering exploded in a puff of misery behind poor Fernando Alonso's head.
Dark days all around at McLaren, with the only light indeed being that which briefly shone with the power of stars igniting from the broken heart of another failed Honda power plant.
Holding one's breath one could hear hearts shattering across McLaren, Honda, Spain, and the wider F1 fan base as two season's worth of misery was heaped upon Fernando and the Woking team in an unrelenting assault, with Miss Physics showing no mercy whilst highlighting flawed engineering deep within Honda's best efforts. Pain such that Fernando felt the need to exit Formula One, and clear his head and heart with high-speed delights in other categories.
Fast-forward through a global year to forget of Pandemic distress. Suddenly the Honda engineers, with the Sword of Damocles no longer hanging over them by a hair, since it has already fallen, severing their entire operation from Mothership Honda, and they are finding the right dance steps to sweep Miss Physics off her feet. Finally! Long desired performance, and winning glory are no longer buried in waking nightmares! The Honda family crypt is no longer filling with expired engines at an alarming clip. Said power plant is not just lasting an entire race weekend, it is powering young V. Max to the top step of the podium!
So the Honda power plant finally comes good. As I write this V. Max is riding high with said 2021 Honda unit strapped cheerfully to his back driving him in flawless form to a first season win at Monaco. Which has now been followed by more strong victories.
So just as stock market sheep act as a mindless flock, buying high and selling low in unquestioned unison, now the Honda power unit finally works like an (earth) dream with wins flowing rapidly, and Honda are set to once more evaporate like Autumn mist in the crisp morning light of another cool day, vanishing into thin air while at the peak of their game.
Why dear Honda now? How long will the current style of power unit survive in Formula One? Red Bull now have an engineering division they did not intend, one assumes, to ever own. Yet own it they now do, and using it to power them to a fresh wave of success is surely possible for a few final golden seasons at least.
Yet do not rush to being broken-hearted dear reader. While sad to see such a fine engineering firm, with a mighty racing tradition, walk away just as they return to greatness. Remember Honda the company lives to fight another day, and Red Bull power plants will be well placed to take the fight to Mercedes, and fend off the resurgent Ferrari, for at least a brace of seasons.
So let's take a casual meander through the awkward on-again, off-again drama that is the tale of love, joy, pain, and racing addiction between Honda, and Formula One.
Founded in October 1946, in Tokyo by Soichiro Honda, and Takeo Fujisawa, Honda has long been a precision and intellect-based firm. Their motorbikes opened European eyes to the quality of what was then cheap Japanese engineering back in the late 1950's and early 1960's. Indeed Honda have been the largest manufacturer of motorbikes since 1959, with many now collectable gems littered throughout their production history.
The first road cars came in 1960. Modest, but intelligently designed, and for the time quite briskly evolving. Remarkably Honda was in Formula One just four years later. Hitting the track in 1964, and gaining a first win at the 1965 Mexican Grand Prix, with the American Richie Ginther at the wheel. A remarkable arrival for a team producing both the engine, and chassis as only Ferrari, and BRM were capable of doing at that time.
The talented John Surtees then drove for Honda, winning the 1967 Italian Grand Prix in a Honda RA300, designed, and developed with supporting input from Lola.
The following year the RA301 was a poor performer, being replaced by the RA302 with Honda seeking regular returns to the podium. Instead the tragic death of Jo Schlesser in a horrific crash convinced the Japanese manufacturer to withdraw from Formula One at the end of the 1968 season, four brief years after entering, with three wins to their name.
1983 sees Honda return as an engine supplier, just as screaming turbo engines were igniting tracks around the world. Initially supplying the Spirit team, they rapidly moved on, teaming first with Williams, from 1983 to 1987, then a brief supply to Lotus in 1987, and 1988, before moving to McLaren from 1988 to 1992, and a single year, 1991, also supplying Tyrrell.
Golden years? Nigel Mansell drove the wheels off his Williams from 1985 to 1987 with Honda power roaring at his back. This was the start of six consecutive constructors championships powered by Honda. The first two with Williams in 1986, and 1987, then four with McLaren from 1988 to 1991.
To pick a single Platinum year within these Golden years? It would have to be 1988. The final raucous year of screaming V6 turbo insanity. Engines the size of cabin baggage producing power on a par with mighty jet engines strapped to the wings of small passenger aircraft! Looking at the McLaren MP4/4 of that year it now looks like a young school boy's best effort at modelling the overly fussy cars of 2021. Smooth, simple, wide, low… and in motion so loud!
Fifteen poles from sixteen races. Thirteen of them for Senna, a modest two for Prost. This translated into fifteen wins, being split eight for Senna, and seven for Prost. The only other team to trouble pole, and the top step of the podium that year was Gerhard Berger in his Ferrari. Berger claimed pole in Britain, but lost the race, while he claimed a delightful win in Italy later that year… albeit with a little help from Jean-Louis Schlesser.
The 1988 Australian Grand Prix was the final race of the turbo era, with Honda fittingly sweeping the podium. Prost edged Senna for the win, while Nelson Piquet completed the podium in his Honda powered Lotus. A delightful ending for Honda to one of the finest seasons in Formula One history.
1989 saw the adoption of 3.5L V10 normally aspirated engines. A move that saw Honda smoothly continuing where they had left off. Ten wins, fifteen pole positions, and Prost World Driver's Champion.
1990, and Senna is a Honda V10 powered driver's champion.
1991, and a newly designed Honda V12 powers Senna to a third championship. Poles, wins and championships across three completely different engine types in under a decade! Can you imagine such engineering delights, and excitement these days? Honda had proven themselves engine masters of the supreme order.
1992, and a young chap named Adrian Newey designs a Williams that finally beats Honda, forcing them to second in the championship as the Williams FW14B proves supreme. The final Honda powered win came for Gerhard Berger at the season ending Australian Grand Prix. With that Honda took their bow, and the curtain was lowered on their second highly successful Formula One visitation. With three wins in their initial Formula One adventure, Honda added another 69 victories between 1983 and 1992. Williams claiming 23 wins from 75 races, Lotus two wins from 32 races, and McLaren claiming a mighty 44 wins from 80 races with Honda power.
No wonder the return of 2006 was greeted with excitement and delight by fans, and grim concern by the other teams. Jenson Button drove some fine races, to be hobbled by poor reliability more often than not. Well-deserved victories being lost on multiple occasions due to mechanical failures. At the end of the 2008 season Honda abruptly withdrew, leaving Ross Brawn to lead a management buy-out which saw a Mercedes engine hastily bolted into the rear of the Honda developed chassis.
2009, and what might have been for Honda? Jenson Button drives a fine season to bring home the World Championship for Brawn in their first, and only, season in Formula One. Thank-you Honda.
2015, and once more Honda has to feed the need, and returns to Formula one, once again partnered with McLaren. A dismal time follows, with Fernando Alonso living to this day with the outcome of shooting from the lip one too many times in public about the complete inability of Honda to provide either reliability, or power as needed to get around a track. Horrrific times for all.
2018 sees Red Bull enter a "try before you buy" deal, having Toro Rosso powered by Honda, while both McLaren, and Red Bull are powered by Renault. The season results in some fine results for the Faenza outfit, and Red Bull, more to stick Renault in the eye than out of lust for Honda, elect to open the wallet, and take the Japanese units for both teams in 2019.
Once more in Australia, and the 2019 Grand Prix sees Max Verstappen take a fine third place in his first Honda powered outing. The RA619H being declared a thing of rare beauty comparable to having the finest Swiss watch sweetly packaged in the rear of the car. Honda F1 Technical Director Toyoharu Tanabe understandably very pleased with a return to winning potential.
At the Austrian Grand Prix Max finally gives Honda their first win since Jenson Button in 2006. A return to the top step.