“One must keep on chasing one’s dreams”
Honda’s prospects for the 2009 Formula One season had looked auspicious with no intimation of the nightmare about to transpire. Indisputably 2008 had been a year to forget, but there were radical aerodynamic changes on the horizon for 2009 which would once again level the playing field. Everyone would be searching for the best solutions and anyone had the potential to triumph over their competitors.
BAR-Honda had placed second in the Constructor’s Championship in 2004 and at the end of the season Honda bought out 45% of the team, sure that with a bit more passion and engineering expertise they would be able to reach the pinnacle they were chasing – the championship title. The title not only continued to elude them, but was causing them to lose face as the following year they plummeted to 6th in the championship, with second driver Takuma Sato managing only one finish in the points all season. At the end of 2005 they bought out the remainder of BAR and renamed it the Honda Racing F1 Team. They would now have complete control over their own destiny.
Jenson Button drove the car to victory at the 2006 Hungarian Grand Prix for his inaugural win and Honda’s first win in their second re-emergence as a works team, but in 2007 the points once again became thin on the ground.
For the 2008 season they persuaded ex-Ferrari guru Ross Brawn, who at the time was filling in his time gardening (or more probably fishing!), to join them, sure that his ability to inspire and lead would provide the missing link needed for them to attain their ultimate goal.
2008 was a year to survive, the factory focusing all their efforts firmly on the 2009 season. The wind tunnel tests bolstered confidence in the car’s potential and Jenson Button had signed a 3 year extension to his contract. From the outside everything looked favourable, but behind the scenes the bean counters at Honda were panicking. There was a global economic crisis and dire predictions were being bandied about of a 25% loss of sales in the car industry. All the major car manufactures were sacking staff and closing factories. Was big spending in F1 the way to keep shareholders and staff content?
Another obstacle was the lack of real world applications to be obtained from the immense investment needed for Formula One racing. Honda’s road car engines were going smaller and greener, not bigger and meaner. The hard yards had been done and the car was almost complete… but Honda pulled the plug and bailed out.
The whole of the Formula One paddock was in shock. If Honda pulled out was any team immune from collapse? After all, Soichiro Honda’s mantra was, “If Honda does not race, there is no Honda.”
As those with even a scant knowledge of the events of the past few years will recall, Ross Brawn bought Honda-F1 for the nominal sum of £1 and formed Brawn GP going on to win both the drivers and the constructor’s championships that year. It was a dream come true, and fully cemented the genius of Brawn’s reputation for ever more. Brawn then made his fortune by selling his stable to Mercedes who then vanquished the field in 2014.
And that, you would think, would be the end of the story. Honda had quit F1. The research and development department in Japan would be closed down and their engineers and designers would be forced to look for employment and challenges elsewhere.
Surprisingly though, that isn’t what happened. Honda kept dreaming, hoping this wasn’t the end but just a short break and that they would soon be back. The R&D factory in Japan kept plugging away. Their car even had a name – the Honda RA109.
Honda had three development teams. The Honda F1 team in Brackley, England and the Honda R&D team in Tochigi, Japan were both researching and designing the chassis. A third group based in Bracknell was responsible for the engine. It would be logical to assume that the Honda RA109 just became the Brawn BGP001 but the Japanese development team continued their own research and development of the RA109 chassis into 2009. Conversely the Brackley development team were responsible for the evolution of the BGP001.
The Honda RA109 was a conventional chassis for the time with push-rod front and rear suspension and simplified bodywork as mandated by the new 2009 regulations. Honda had use of a wind tunnel in Dome, Japan which was utilized into 2009, testing various configurations of front wings and noses for their aerodynamic properties. They settled on a small narrow nose cone which was very different to the final Brawn design which was low and wide. They also did work on the development of a double diffuser, a loophole in the regulations that Ross Brawn used to its full potential.
No one knows how long the Honda Formula One research team continued work as most of the details about their activities and research would never see the light of day. There have been rumours that they even developed their own blown diffuser in 2011 to improve the understanding of the the technology behind it.
KERS had been at the top of the Honda development agenda from the beginning. They had commenced work on it in 2007 and by 2008 were doing track work with the battery pack situated in the nose of a RA1089. In January 2009, even though they had formally pulled out of Formula One, their RA109K chassis passed its crash test with the KERS battery in situ. They also discussed how KERS could be most beneficial in terms of race strategy and it was decided that a single assist for use in passing would be more advantageous than a multiple assist. A single assist was estimated to increased top speed by 15 km/hr which would equate to on-track advantage of 20 meters, while a multiple assist could possibly lower lap times by 0.1 seconds.
Honda F1 boss Yasuhisha Aria said, “We always wanted to return to Formula One. We learned a lot in the underground and this regulation is much more suitable for our job. Honda has already developed a lot of hybrid systems and we have many, many experiences in that. Also, downsizing and using a turbo with direct injection, we learned in-house with a mass-production car. So we have lots of great technology already, I feel. The new regulations are environmentally friendly with high synergy, so that is our comeback reason. Maybe we have a good result in the next year.”
Will the Honda comeback be reminiscent of the 1980’s and 90’s when as an engine constructor they won 11 of the 12 Championships up for grab in a 6 year period or will it echo what might have been just a few years ago when they possibly threw in the towel a year too soon? Maybe Soichiro Honda had it right when he said, “Success represents the 1% of your work which results from the 99% that is called failure.”