Honda’s second spell in Formula 1, when it dominated year after year with Williams and Honda, was always going to be a tough legacy for its latest return to live up to.
The announcement yesterday that they will leave at the end of next year means their fourth era in F1 won’t recreate that success.
They can, however, lay claim to the feat of having won races in all four of their spells in the world championship. Here’s how they did it.
1964-68: Winning works team
The arrival of the Asian car manufacturer into a largely European-based championship in the sixties was highly unusual and drew much speculation in the months before the first Honda F1 car appeared at a race.
The RA271 was developed at Honda’s new Suzuka test track. Built to the 1.5-litre normally aspirated engine rules of the time, it was the only V12 to compete during this era.
Ronnie Bucknum gave the car its debut at the Nurburgring Nordschleife in 1964. The following year he was joined by Richie Ginther as Honda expanded to a two-car operation.
In the 1965 season finale at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, the last race of the 1.5-litre era, Ginther used the grunt of his V12 to superb effect in the high altitude, scoring Honda’s breakthrough win.
For 1966, when new rules allowing engines of up to three litres arrived, Honda relocated from their original base in the Netherlands to Slough, outside London in the United Kingdom. Their first car for the new rules was both late and hugely overweight.
In mid-1967 a new car was introduced. The RA300 was more than slightly inspired by Lolas of the time, so much so that it was nicknamed the ‘Hondola’. Nonetheless it was massively lighter than its predecessor.
John Surtees scored an astonishing victory with it in its first race at Monza. Jim Clark dropped back with a loss of fuel on the final lap, and Surtees beat Jack Brabham to the finishing line by a nose.
The following year Honda introduced two new cars. The RA301 was a conventional evolution of its race-winning predecessor. The RA302 was a more radical beast, featuring an air-cooled V8 engine and magnesium skin. Surtees declared the latter was not ready to race after testing it, so Honda entrusted the car to debutant Jo Schlesser for the French Grand Prix at Rouen.
In dreadful conditions, Schlesser crashed and was killed, the magnesium body fuelling a huge fire. Honda saw the season out, but withdrew at the end of the year.
1983-1992: Honda’s period of dominance
Honda returned to Formula 1 halfway through the ‘turbo era’. Renault had introduced its novel 1.5-litre blown engine in 1977, won with it in 1979, and by 1982 Ferrari had become the first turbo-powered champions.
The following year Honda dipped a toe back in the F1 waters with the Spirit outfit. This was a precursor to teaming up with Williams the following year.
Their early engines were powerful but somewhat binary in the delivery of their awesome grunt. Keke Rosberg took a Williams-Honda to victory at Dallas in their first year together, but this was very much a triumph of man over machine – not to mention fearsome heat and a crumbling track surface.
The package came good the following year and by the end of the season Rosberg and team mate Nigel Mansell had the cars to beat. Williams won the constructors’ championship with Honda power the following year, but the drivers’ title eluded them, as Mansell and new team mate Nelson Piquet fought each other and lost out to Alain Prost’s McLaren-TAG Porsche.
In 1987 Honda powered both Williams and Lotus, linking up with Ayrton Senna at the latter. He conjured two wins from a package which was clearly inferior to the Williams, which took the constructors’ title again, while Piquet clinched the drivers’ crown.
Nonetheless Honda saw the opportunity for better things, and informed Williams they would take their engines elsewhere for 1988: McLaren. With Senna arriving to join Prost, one of the most formidable teams F1 has ever seen was assembled. They won all bar one of the races, while Piquet never looked a threat in his Lotus, who lost their Hondas at the end of the year.
While the MP4/4 car been rightly lauded as one of the greatest F1 cars ever, Honda’s achievement the following year was also remarkable. Despite a wholesale change in the engine regulations which saw 1.5-litre turbos banned and 3.5-litre normally aspirated engines introduced, they hardly skipped a beat, and their potent new V10 sustained their championship dominance with McLaren.
As if not content with one change of engine format, Honda produced another all-new engine for 1991 – a V12 (Tyrrell secured a supply of Honda’s previous-generation V10s). By now they were under serious pressure from Williams-Renault, but Senna saw off the threat from Mansell. For the fifth year in a row a Honda-powered driver won the championship, and they took their sixth constructors’ title on the bounce.
Flushed with a success, it was to little surprise that in mid-1992, with Williams and Renault dominating the championship, Honda called time on their F1 programme.
2000-08: Largely unsuccessful V10 return
By the time Honda returned to Formula 1 engine sizes had been reduced to 3.0 litres. Jordan had won races in 1998 and 1999 with customer Mugen-Hondas, but Honda chose rivals British American Racing for their return to F1 in 2000. Jordan joined them the following year.
But after rival Toyota arrived with a full works entry in 2002, Honda began thinking about a return to running a factory squad. With a ban on tobacco advertising looming, Honda opted to take over the British American Tobacco-owned team for 2006.
The move paid off quickly: Jenson Button climbed from 14th on the grid to win superbly in Hungary. But the team’s 2007 car was a disaster – so much so that offshoot team Super Aguri, running what was effectively a 2006 Honda, were a genuine threat.
The situation barely improved in 2008 but the Ross Brawn-run team had big plans for the coming change in aerodynamic rules. The 2009 car ultimately proved to be a gem, but it never carried the Honda name: The manufacturer pulled the plug amid the financial downturn at the end of 2008. Brawn took over the team, which sensationally won the 2009 titles, then sold it to Mercedes.
2015-21: Tough start to hybrid era
Four-and-a-half years passed between Honda announcing its third departure from F1 and declaring its decision to return. But having bowed out as a full constructor, in 2013 the manufacturer revealed plans to revive its tremendously successful relations with McLaren, as an engine supplier.
The reunion proved a disaster. McLaren staggered to ninth in the constructors’ championship and star driver Fernando Alonso embarrassment the manufacturer by describing the unit as a “GP2 engine” during their home race.
A modest improvement followed in their second season, but an extensive redesign of the engine for 2017 sent the team back to square one. Their patience exhausted, McLaren severed the deal. Honda’s humiliation was doubled as, after agreeing terms to supply Sauber with engines, a management team at their new customer led to the deal being torn up.
However Red Bull were eyeing alternatives to their Renault engine supply, and for 2018 agreed terms for Honda to provide power units to their junior team. Red Bull liked what they say: Pierre Gasly took fourth in Bahrain, the second race for Toro Rosso-Honda.
Red Bull switched to Honda engines in 2019 and the decision was soon vindicated. Honda’s first win of its fourth F1 era was scored by Max Verstappen at the Red Bull Ring. He followed it up with two more victories by the end of the year.
The team failed to close the gap to the dominant Mercedes in the following winter, but Verstappen was first to beat the Mercedes to victory in 2020 at Silverstone. Astonishingly, Gasly pinched a win in unusual circumstances at Monza at the beginning of September.
But by that time Honda had already put Red Bull on notice that they were considering their future in the sport. Later in the month they confirmed the decision had been taken to cancel its F1 programme again, in order to pour its resources into developing more environmentally-friendly engine technologies.