Honda’s stay in F1 has been remarkable, achieving many a win, and scoring a couple of titles along the way. But the 1990s and 2000s never quite saw Honda return to their glory days of the 1980s.
1996: Oddly enough, the Honda name didn’t leave F1 in 1993. Associate company Mugen (which was founded by Hirotoshi Honda, son of Honda founder Soichiro) partnered first with Footwork in 1993, then Ligier in 1995. Thus, when Olivier Panis won in Monaco in 1996, it was with Mugen-Honda power.
1999: Mugen-Honda’s best ever season was 1999, with Jordan. With two wins in France and Italy and inconsistency reining supreme at Ferrari and McLaren, Heinz-Harald Frentzen managed to get to within ten points of the title battle with three rounds to go. Sadly, poor form in the last three races put him out of contention.
2001: 2000 saw Honda’s return to the sport, with BAR. Indeed, Honda were supposed to make a return to F1 as a constructor that same year. But the effort was led by Harvey Postlethwaite, who died in 1999. With his death, the constructor project was put on hold.
After staying on for 2000, Mugen gave way to Honda, meaning Honda supplied both Jordan and BAR for 2001. Honda managed to score some podiums that year, thanks to Jacques Villeneuve and BAR, taking place at Spain and Germany. Honda dropped Jordan after 2002, focusing all attention their on BAR.
2004: This was Jenson Button and BAR’s best season to date, as well as Honda’s best season since 1992. Imola was a case in point, with Jenson having a brilliant start and a strong first stint. Although he got beaten by Michael Schumacher, BAR really did have the pace that race – and indeed, all season.
2005: By now, people were wondering whether Honda would buy the BAR team outright and re-enter F1 as a full-fledged constructor. Soon enough, the announcement was made: Honda would buy out BAR and start running the team full-time from 2006.
BAR’s fuel tank crisis wasn’t a shining moment for the team, however. It took place at Imola, almost a year to the day after Button and BAR’s first pole. BAR’s return to form was thrown out, and so was the whole team, for two races.
The Canadian Grand Prix provided some relief, as Jenson took pole. But then he got intimate with the Wall of Champions thanks to some pressure from Michael Schumacher. In the video below, skip over to the 6:50 mark.
2006: Honda was an F1 constructor again for the first time in almost 4 decades, and it was a pretty good start. While not as strong as 2004, they were consistently scoring points, and getting the occasional podium.
But the big moment of the year was of course that win in Budapest. F1 had never had a wet race there, and Honda read it better than the rest. They got a bit lucky, thanks to Alonso’s pit stop misfortune and Schumacher’s risk backfiring, but Jenson’s drive in changing conditions was a remarkable feat.
2007: The year began badly for Honda. First, they weren’t able to get a replacement for sponsor BAT (of Lucky Strike and BAR fame), who finally left the sport entirely. Rumored negotiations with Emirates and Google both fell through, so Honda created the ultimate PR spin: myearthdream. They declared that they would run with no sponsors and use the car’s ad space to push for an environmental message instead. That would prove to be a big mistake.
But other problems had already overtaken that: the RA107 was a horrible car, and it was stuggling to score a point, never mind podiums or wins. Button did well to score fifth in China, but that was as good as it got.
2008: Honda were hoping for a better 2008, at least at the start of the year. But it wasn’t to be. But there seemed to be some promising signs: Ross Brawn came on board, and Rubens Barrichello got a podium at Silverstone. By the second half of the season, the team was publicly stating that their focus was on 2009.
Alas, events overtook them. The financial crisis hit car makers particularly hard, and the Honda board in Tokyo wasn’t made up of the same people involved in the 1960s. The Honda board saw that it wasn’t in their best interests to go on, and abruptly decided to pull the plug on the sport.
With no sponsors to fall back on, can the beleaguered team now find a buyer? I’m pretty confident they will. But whatever name they’ll be under next year, it won’t be Honda, and that’s a shame.
Read the first part of this series: Honda: 1963-2008 in videos part 1