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Honda's Formula One Engine History

Honda Racing Engine

By Phil Huff (27/01/2004)
January 27 2004

One of the new rules for the forthcoming Formula One season relates to engines, with each car required to use only one engine throughout the whole race weekend. Changing the engine leads to a 10 position penalty on the grid, so there's a lot at stake. It also makes a perfect excuse for taking a look at the history of Honda engines in Formula One...

The 1964 Honda RA271E

Honda entered Formula One in 1964. Their first F1 engine, the RA270E, had been designed purely as a prototype, and work was quickly stepped up for a refined version, type-numbered RA271E, for the fast approaching 1964 season. Even more pressing was the need for an all-new chassis. This merited the exclusive attention of a separate team of design engineers, who used the knowledge gained from the RA270F test chassis constructed in 1963 to underpin their efforts.

A potential pitfall related to this innovative transverse positioning of a long V12 engine was increasing the width, and hence aerodynamic frontal area of the car. Once again, an integrated approach to chassis and engine design eventually led Honda's engineers to a revolutionary solution: the decision was taken to treat the engine as an integral, load-bearing part of the chassis.

The 1984 Honda RA164E

Fifty Grands Prix later, and Honda were supplying engines to Williams, who fitted them to the FW09B driven by Jacques Laffite and Keke Rosberg. For the 1984 season, Honda produced the RA164E, a heavily revised version of the RA163E designed to prevent a recurrence of the previous season's woes. The potential of the engine was endorsed by a healthy increase in power, but there were also further heat-related problems, which forced the Honda engineers into rethinking some aspects of the basic design.

The major headache was piston damage. Turning up the turbo boost to increase power exposed the pistons to higher temperatures and extremely high combustion pressure. Initial modifications made to the pistons were not enough to provide a full solution. A further problem was posed by the engine's high fuel consumption, which forced drivers to ease off the power in the latter half of races.

Continued trial and error eventually bore fruit, with a long-awaited win in the US Grand Prix, two weeks after Honda's 50th Grand Prix. Held in Dallas on a disintegrating track surface in intense 42 degree centigrade heat, a skilful performance by Keke Rosberg – starting from eighth on the grid – brought a first Grand Prix victory for Honda since 1967, in its sixteenth race since returning to F1.

The 1987 Honda RA167E

By 1987, another 150 GP's later, Honda felt ready to expand its programme by supplying a second team with its new RA167E power unit. Lotus joined Williams in benefiting from the advantage provided by Honda power.

Eager to build on the previous year's success, Williams Honda retained Mansell and Piquet as the drivers of its refined FW11B model. Lotus' all-new 99T chassis, meanwhile, featured a revolutionary "active" suspension system. Lotus team leader Ayrton Senna was joined by Satoru Nakajima, who sparked the boom in Japanese interest in F1 by becoming the country's first regular Grand Prix driver.

The high point for Honda came at the British Grand prix, as Mansell, Piquet, Senna and Nakajima finished 1-2-3-4. In total, Honda-powered cars took victory in 11 of the year's 16 races, and a podium result in 14 rounds. The company's powerplants were now regarded as the only ticket to Grand Prix success.

The 1990 Honda RA100E

More developments came in 1990, which saw Honda enter their 150th Grand Prix. The conventional sliding throttle used on the RA109E gave way to a butterfly type on the RA100E. Race engines typically use a sliding throttle because it offers less intake resistance at full throttle. However, at the lower end of the throttle range, vortices can be generated as the throttle is opened, disturbing the fuel flow and thereby slowing the supply of fuel to the engine. The consequent delayed throttle response results in slower lap times. The introduction of a butterfly throttle on the RA100E yielded a dramatic improvement in throttle response.

The new engine was to be installed in an improved version of the previous year's McLaren chassis, the MP4/5B. Alain Prost had left for Ferrari, Austrian Gerhard Berger joining McLaren as team-mate to Ayrton Senna. The 1990 season saw the gap narrow between McLaren-Honda and Ferrari, which had made major progress with both its chassis and V12 engine. Neither Senna nor Berger was completely satisfied with the new chassis, and both were asking for more power to combat the resurgent Ferraris. Honda responded with an intensive effort to increase the output of the RA100E, assisted in the second half of the season by the advent of special new fuels.

The final result was another successful campaign, which saw Senna overcome the Ferrari onslaught to regain the World Championship from Prost, carving out six victories from sixteen races. Senna used all his virtuosity, and the McLaren Honda package's versatility, to defeat his ex-team-mate and perennial rival and reclaim the drivers' crown. In the constructors' standings, McLaren Honda fended off Ferrari to capture the title by eleven points.

The 2000 Honda RA000E

Honda's 200th Grand Prix was the Italian Grand Prix of 2000, the first year of Honda's third F1 participation. Jacques Villeneuve qualified the BAR Honda 002 in a season-best 4th position, only to retire on lap 15. Villeneuve's Brazilian team-mate Ricardo Zonta, however, fared better, taking a World Championship point with a 6th place finish from his starting position of 17th.

The company set itself a new challenge in its quest to achieve success with the British American Racing team. Now, not only was it developing and manufacturing its 3-litre V10 RA000E engines, but was also concerning itself with racing car chassis development. The emphasis on chassis and aerodynamic involvement was a key factor in Honda's decision to return to the Grand Prix arena. The intention was to look beyond its traditional expertise in engine technology and consider the integrated development of the total chassis and engine package. The partnership with British American Racing came about as a result of this holistic approach.

The 2003 Honda RA003E

Honda's 250th Grand Prix at the Hungaroring, Hungary, saw new signing for 2003 Jenson Button in the Lucky Strike BAR Honda 005 make an average start from 14th on the grid before recovering to overtake Heinz-Harald Frentzen (Sauber) and Jos Verstappen (Minardi). The Briton eventually finished 10th. By contrast, team-mate Jacques Villeneuve got a great start, moving up to 10th place from 16th position on the grid but was forced to retire on lap 14 with a hydraulic leak.

The start of the 2003 F1 World Championship heralded a significant development in Honda's third generation of its challenge in the sport. After two years providing equal specification factory engines to two teams - the only manufacturer to have done so in that time - Honda had further consolidated its partnership with BAR, the team it re-entered F1 with in 2000. For 2003 the Japanese manufacturer supplied Lucky Strike BAR Honda with the RA003E V10 powerplant.

A key part of Honda's F1 challenge was its well-established joint chassis development programme with the BAR team. In 2003, over twenty Honda designers and engineers were on long-term secondment at BAR's Brackley headquarters, approximately double the number of previous years. They continued to work alongside their BAR partners to find design solutions and applications for new ideas, drawing on the resources of Honda's research and development centre in Tochigi, where more than two hundred engineers were engaged with the Formula One project.

Honda also became an official BAR sponsor for the first time in 2003, and the company's logos took greater prominence on the BAR Honda 005 than in previous years, a clear sign of the increased collaboration between the two partners. Honda's name was carried once again by Jacques Villeneuve and new team-mate Jenson Button, then entering his fourth year of Formula One.

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