Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Japan and Formula 1

Have you ever wondered why no Japanese drivers have truly succeeded in Formula 1? And while Japan still awaits a maiden Grand Prix victory from one of its driver’s, Honda has thus far carried the torch while the verdict is still out over its rival Toyota…

Although this season’s results have been horrific for Honda and its “Planet Earth” theme, nevertheless Honda’s storied history in Formula 1 now spans over four decades. With Japan’s first success coming during Honda’s original foray into F1 in the early 1960’s.

The burgeoning team began life with a relative unknown American driver by the name of Ronnie Bucknum after Honda was unable to acquire the services of Phil Hill.

Bucknum debuted the Honda RA271 1.5 liter V-12 in the German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring in 1963, with Honda’s single car effort wallowing about the rear of the grid during 1964 before Honda decided to add a second American pilot to its line-up in 1965.

This driver was fellow Californian Richie Ginther who was known as a very good development driver, which Honda was looking for. Ginther scored Honda’s very first Formula 1 World Championship point with a sixth place finish at Spa. Then in the very last race of the 1.5 liter engine era held in Mexico City, Ginther scored Honda’s maiden F1 victory with Bucknum finishing fifth.

From 1966-68, Honda struggled to come to grips with the new 3.0 liter engine formula as both Bucknum and Ginther left the team at the end of 1966. They were replaced by 1964 World Champion John Surtees for the ‘67 season. Surtees would give Honda its second F1 victory at Monza, Italy in the RA 300’s racing debut before falling out of favour withSoichiro Honda over the portly RA 302 not being ready to race.

Thus in the summer of 1968 the unwieldy RA 302 magnesium chassis, air cooled V-12 race car was given to Frenchman Jo Schlesser to race in the French GP instead. Unfortunately Schlesser lost control of the vehicle, rolled and burst into flames before loosing his life, thus effectively ending Honda’s first foray into Formula 1 at the end of the 1968 season.

Interestingly when the movie Grand Prix was made in 1966, I suspect it was viewed as preposterous that a Japanese entry would ever win the World Championship. But in 1983 Honda began development of a new style racing engine, a 1.5 liter twin turbocharged V-6 running in the back of the minnow-esc Spirit Racing team before jumping to Williams for the 1984 season.

Honda’s World Championship winning ways began in 1987 with their mighty engine propelling Williams Nelson Piquet to his third and final driver’s crown. This began a streak of five consecutive championships with Williams and McLaren, as the two rival British teams wrestled for Honda “Works” status during this time period.

Three Japanese drivers participated in the inaugural Japanese Grand Prix at Mount Fuji (1976-77) with a fourth joining the following year before switching venues to Suzuka owned by Honda in 1987. The fabulous Suzuka circuito was originally built as a test track in 1962 near by Honda’s immense factory.

Suzuka saw many fierce battles between championship rivals Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. It was also here where Senna had his famous punch-up with rookie Eddie “Irv the Swerve” Irvine.

Although Suzuka hosted the Japanese Grand Prix from 1987-2006, ironically this year’s event will revert back to Mount Fuji which has been owned by Toyota since 2000 and heavily updated.

Yet with Honda’s return to Grand Prix racing in the early 1980’s, the resurgence of this Rising Sun manufacturer as a championship winning engine supplier allowed Honda to flex its powerful influence upon Formula 1. Thus triggering a new influx of Japanese drivers with Satoru Nakajima spearheading the charge, as Nakajima’s close ties with Honda helped him land the second Lotus seat alongside Ayrton Senna in 1987, after testing a Williams “mule” chassis with Honda power prior to becoming the very first full time Japanese driver in F1. He also became the first Japanese driver to score World Championship points in only his second race outing…

To continue reading, see; Japan and Formula 1 (Part 2)

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