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Blog: Why Honda might still get it right



It’s easy to forget now, but just a few months ago the anticipation was tangible. The expectations acute. That most famous and decorated of team and engine supplier partnerships was being rekindled for this F1 season, and plenty of eyes burned on it. If when you in the early part of this year first saw back with us the McLaren-Honda title – be it in a season preview, written on the side of the garage or wherever – and it didn’t get at least a few hairs standing on end, then frankly there is something wrong with you.

And yet. Half a season on it even with its haughty previous its mention will likely now elicit rather different associations. While it’s had a recent mini-upturn in results the Honda unit has been and remains a major disappointment, probably the biggest disappointment of anyone or anything this season, being off the back on power and with (un)reliability that borders the comical. In a strange way adding to the woes is that the McLaren chassis is reckoned by many to be a strong one, not of a Mercedes level but certainly in the mix for best of the rest. It serves to make the power unit impediment experienced by the partnership yet more stark.
Honda started its effort two years after the three incumbent manufacturers, but that it appears only the thin end of the wedge.

As Mark Hughes explained on a recent Motorsport podcast the problems have the look of running much deeper. “In terms of how the partnership is progressing, no it’s not a happy story” said Hughes. “You don’t get the impression that Honda fully appreciates the urgency of a racing programme, it’s almost treating it as a nice little R&D project, which is obviously frustrating the hell out of the McLaren people. McLaren would like to have more control over it than they have got, because at the moment we don’t know when we’re going to get decent horsepower or decent reliability…”

Nigel Roebuck on the same podcast added: “The depressing thing is when Ross [Brawn] was first at Honda that was exactly the word he used, and Honda had been in for several years by then with the programme they were on at the time, and he just said ‘I cannot get any urgency into them’. And that was always said of Honda, you talk to Surtees about how things were in the ‘60s and he says it was very much: ‘this is how we do things’.”

The Times’ Kevin Eason on Sky’s F1 Show journalist special perceived additional woes: “I think Honda, rightly in a way, underestimated the scale of the challenge…suddenly you just go ‘wow this is really complicated’.”

Indeed murmurs persisted even before this McLaren-Honda turned a wheel of the Japanese marque not giving the project nearly as much resource, personnel or urgency as was necessary. Of even late last year half of its high-tech test beds not running and the like. Of engineering staff working on it being rotated like it was an HR exercise primarily. Over-promising in public and reportedly in private can hardly have helped either.

And as Eason further noted there are possible problems of proximity also: “If you’ve got an engine supplier and they’re 6,500 miles from where you are, that’s a very long bridge to cross isn’t it? Speaking a different language and all the brains are in Britain; they’re all in motorsport valley. I’m sure they’ve got brilliant people in Honda, I’m sure they have, but it’s still a long way from the heart of the action.”

Which led Eason neatly onto another factor that plenty have suggested as a significant reason for Honda’s struggle. Perhaps even the significant reason. “I just feel that Honda need to open up a bit, just relax the belts and admit they’re not getting it right. If I was them I’d be ringing up the guy at Mercedes and saying ‘whatever it costs, come over’.”

Michael Schmidt of Auto Motor und Sport in the same discussion agreed: “That’s the big problem with Honda, being isolated in Japan…they don’t know the benchmarks like Renault, Ferrari and Mercedes do because they get engineers from other manufacturers so they learn what the benchmark is.”

Cross fertilisation – working out what it is that makes the quick guys quick – is F1’s way. And almost always the key thing to get right in order to be competitive. Indeed much of Ferrari’s leap forward on the power unit front this year is attributed to the Scuderia employing a no more complicated expedient than simply hiring a few folks from Mercedes so it could learn what the standard-bearing Merc had got up to. But Honda is not doing this.

And it is not mere oversight. Instead as Ted Kravitz explained in Silverstone in one of his ‘Notebook’ broadcasts, it is deliberate strategy. “A lot of information I get from Japan is that it’s not the Honda way to recruit engine specialists from outside” he said, “part of the reason they do this Formula One malarkey is that they want to learn how to do it themselves”.

But even so Kravitz wasn’t sold. “Alright, OK” he went on, “well that will work in four years’ time, once they figure out where they are and how quickly it’s going to take for them to catch up. So surely McLaren will be pushing from their side to recruit some more people, perhaps some specialists in this department, into Honda to allow them to catch up.”

And McLaren has indeed been pushing as racing director Eric Boullier indicated in July: “Yeah, definitely. Honda could have bought some experience from other engine manufacturers and maybe should actually” he said, his prose sounding rather loaded. “We would recommend it just because to make sure you go faster and you accelerate your development program because they have solutions ready to fix things, or maybe some understanding.”

Boullier added elsewhere: “For Honda, if it’s a five-year project, and if they win in year three or four, it’s a successful project. For McLaren, we cannot afford to wait three or four years. We need to win in year one or two…We put them under pressure to accelerate the timing. Whatever it takes.”

But when asked in Silverstone if Honda would be seeking to ‘poach’ from Ferrari or Mercedes the Japanese marque’s motorsport boss Yasuhisa Arai said: “I don’t think so. We have enough resources already.”

Arai expanded on it all more recently: “It [hiring staff from other manufacturers] is a wonderful idea, but I think it would be very difficult to sign an engineer from Ferrari or Mercedes or wherever.
“For example, it would be difficult for them to work with us as the culture is quite different, the equipment, the simulation, everything. So they could be highly skilled, but it would take too long for them to learn how we operate.

“Also, we as Honda want our employees to work together with us for a long time, so when someone comes along for six months and then leaves, it is very difficult. It's not how we work.”

So an irrefutable case for Honda’s prosecution? Well, despite how it all sounds, no. Not quite. Or at least, not yet.

There is a reminder from history. We all recall the McLaren-Honda heyday as explained at the outset. Most of us recall the Japanese concern’s about-as-dominant spell with Williams just before it too.

But recollections of Honda’s inauspicious early days of that F1 attempt are less sharp. Then just like now it was far from plain sailing; then just like now many scoffed at its apparently unconventional and detached approach. As Patrick Head taking up the story explains indeed Honda then makes what Honda is doing now appear if anything a model of professionalism and commitment: “Honda sent an engine to us and it was literally a block with a couple of heads on it and sump” said Head. “No inlet manifold, no exhaust manifold. No exhaust system, no data, no thermal balance. The turbos came in a cardboard box.

“In those days you communicated by telex, so that was clacking back and forth as we tried to get some information. I sent Mr Kawamoto a telex asking for a complete thermal balance for the engine and various other things such as exhaust specification and so on. He sent back a telex saying, ‘Please design what you think’. That was it! We had one guy, Gary Thomas, in the design office, and liked to get into engines. So we just sat down and worked out the numbers.”
Driver at the time Keke Rosberg noted too that on track things weren’t a great deal better: “For most of the time I was with them, everything was a total disaster – blocks breaking, things like that. And in those circumstances you don’t need an engine man to sort it out; you need a racing engineer who has sound knowledge of this business. And that’s what Williams supplied to them.”

The Honda engine that sought to conquer F1 initially in 1984 (and in 1983, first in a Spirit and then in the season-closing race with Williams) was rather a joke, albeit a joke for different reasons to the Honda unit now. Like now the unit was unreliable, but then it had power in there somewhere but the power was delivered in an incredible, and not always predictable, bang. This had implications both for handling and for the chassis being stiff enough to cope, though it didn’t help that in 1984 Head was still cautious about carbon fibre and remained in a rapidly diminishing minority sticking resolutely by a chassis constructed from aluminium honeycomb.

But in that F1 way of things jokes only remain jokes until they start to go fast. Eighteen months or so on Honda’s was the engine to have; Williams won the final three rounds of the 1985 season and perhaps, just perhaps, Rosberg could have had a run at that year’s title with reliability. In Rio, Zandvoort and Monza his car conked out while leading. Come 1986 the Williams-Honda was the class of the field, and while the two Williams pilots somehow let Alain Prost nip between them for the drivers’ title that season other than that Honda’s monopoly of the two World Championships was not broken until 1992. The unit was untouchable, and the astonishing level of commitment, resource and attention to detail that Honda demonstrated – which often left mouths of rivals gaping – in so doing could not have been further removed from the ‘turbo in a box’.
And it did it with loosely the same approach that is being so derided now. Even though of course there is no necessity that history will repeat, we shouldn’t forget that.

This was something outlined by Joe Saward on the most recent Sidepodcast ‘An Aside with Joe’ episode. “First time around with Honda it was a disaster [at Williams] to start with and then suddenly it all clicked and bingo-bango they won two World Championships” he reminded us.

“There’s a lot of people out there kicking Honda and saying what a load of rubbish they are, well just hang on a minute, you know let’s just see. It’s easy to knock, it’s not easy to do this stuff because this is cutting edge and people say that Honda’s not what it used to be well if you look at the numbers that Honda turned in last year they’re doing a pretty decent job for a bunch of people that don’t know how to design cars. And engines are their speciality remember, let’s not forget that. Now admittedly in their last effort with BAR it didn’t work out and that car with a Mercedes engine in it won the World Championship dressed up as a Brawn, that’s all true. So you can’t be 100% certain it’s going to work but it depends on the generations. In Honda’s case very specifically the particular group of engineers working on the engine.

“The thing I like about Honda, in a way it doesn’t make sense, but they don’t go out and hire other people in and bring their knowledge. Ferrari when they were trying to catch up with Mercedes just hired a couple of guys from Mercedes, but Honda don’t do that. They use their own people and try to get them to think their way through, and that way they think; they’re not following they’re leading. They may be leading badly at the moment but once they get ahead and it’s their own ideas other people are going to have trouble following, and that’s certainly what happened in the 1980s when Honda just were gone. In the end people started hiring people out of Honda. That’s just a philosophical way they have of looking at things.

“There’s no guarantee they’re going to be successful but if they are they’re going to be very successful, because they’ll have done all their thinking in house and other people will have to work out what they did.”

That’s it – the approach can be summed up as one of risk and reward. The risk we’re witnessing manifestation of now, that it takes longer to get it right. But the potential rewards are much greater, not just in terms of your company learning but especially in that if you do get ahead it’ll be much harder for your rivals to copy what you’ve done. So you’ll stay ahead for longer.

But Schmidt added a note of caution: “You could say ‘OK but Honda got it right in the past being also isolated’, but we’re talking now about a different animal, in the past the power unit was just an engine now it’s a monster, it’s all interacting…If they stay isolated in Japan it will be very difficult to get out of it.”

Arai however judging by his words knows this too. “The sport has changed immensely since the McLaren-Honda ‘glory days’” he said. “The current technology is much more sophisticated and it is tough to make a good racing car. We knew it wouldn’t be easy, but perhaps we didn’t imagine that it would be this hard.

“I certainly didn’t imagine technology wise what we would be facing, but I have complete confidence in the direction we have taken with our power unit.”

He also recognises the risks of the approach: “I think Honda’s development method is very different to Formula One and McLaren. Of course I have big pressure on my shoulders – especially from the fans, the Honda board and my colleagues, but this is completely normal.”

And to get to the final benefit of the Honda approach, that this way you also make it more likely that you’ll discover something the rest haven’t thought of, this is something Arai knows also. “We needed to create something radical in order to beat the top teams, and that is our ultimate goal – to beat the best.” Fernando Alonso’s logic too was watertight when he noted in Malaysia: “To beat Mercedes you need to do something special, not to copy them because otherwise you will be behind all the time. It will take some time but we will grow up together”

Maybe of course Honda won’t get it right. Maybe it’ll be a repeat of its less impressive last stab at F1 in the noughties rather than its imperious ‘80s and early ‘90s. Maybe the company’s patience will run out in the meantime and will pull out. But right now even with everything we’ve witnessed so far it all remains a case of wait and see.


Author: Graham Keilloh

TWITTER: @TalkingaboutF1

Blog: talkingaboutf1.com

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The Journalist

Writer: Red5 Mail feedback, articles or suggestions

Date:Sunday August 16 2015

Time: 9:39AM

 

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