Honda has big plans for next three years

Updated: July 24, 2004, 7:57 PM ET
By Dan Knutson | Special to ESPN.com

HOCKENHEIM, Germany -- Honda has some pretty clear-cut and very high goals for its next three Formula One seasons. Those goals include winning the World Championship.

On Friday, before practice began for the German Grand Prix, Honda and BAR announced a long-term extension of their partnership contract. They have signed a three-year deal through the end of 2007, and the idea is for their joint venture to go on for many years after that.

"This three-year contract that starts from 2005 states as an objective to win a World Championship at any year during the contract period," said Shoichi Tanaka, the president of Honda R&D. "Honda clearly remains committed to the BAR team, and I can assure you is committed to winning the Formula One World Championship."

Honda knows a thing or two about winning F1 races and the World Championship. The Japanese auto manufacturer has been involved in F1 on three different occasions during the past 40 years.

Honda's first foray into F1 was from 1964 through 1968, when it built its own chassis and engines. American Richie Ginther scored the marque's first F1 victory when he won the 1965 Mexican Grand Prix. The second win came with John Surtees in the 1967 Italian Grand Prix.

After a low-key return to F1 in 1983 with the Spirit team, Honda came back in force the following season with Williams. Honda no longer built its own chassis and was an engine supplier only. Keke Rosberg gave Honda its first F1 win after its return with a victory in the 1984 U.S. Grand Prix in Dallas. Four more wins followed in 1985.

Honda's glory era lasted from 1986 through 1992 when it was associated at various times with Lotus, Williams and McLaren. During this time, Honda-powered cars won 74 Grand Prix races, five consecutive Drivers Championships from 1987 through 1991 and six consecutive Constructors Championships between 1986 and 1991.

Although it pulled out of F1 at the end of the 1992 season, Honda stayed in touch via its sister company Mugen, which supplied engines to various teams from 1992 through 2000.

Honda's third F1 era began in 2000 when it hooked up with BAR. Jordan, a Mugen-Honda user from 1998 through 2000, ran Honda engines in 2001 and 2002. Since then, however, Honda has had an exclusive deal with BAR.

Since its return in 2000, Honda hasn't been able to match the success enjoyed during its championship era. Part of this is because BAR simply hasn't been good enough to produce a winning car and team. And neither was Jordan.

In the past, Honda was with McLaren and Williams, the two best teams of the time, and with world-renowned drivers such as Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost and Nelson Piquet.

True, BAR had a former World Champion in Jacques Villeneuve, but other than that, there is no comparison between the BAR/Jordan team and drivers in recent years and the powerhouse McLaren/Williams teams and drivers in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Honda, too, seemed to be taking a while to find its old magic. Critics say that Honda was a bit arrogant and na´ve in thinking that it could just step back in. The whole F1 engine front has changed massively in recent years, and budgets have increased accordingly.

On the other hand, Honda has proved in the past and present that when it sets its mind to it, victories will eventually come. Just look at the way Honda is dominating the Indy Racing League this year.

On the F1 front, things have changed dramatically this season. In its first five years in F1, BAR earned a total of two podium finishes (a pair of thirds). In the first nine races in 2004, Jenson Button finished on the podium six times (two seconds and four thirds) and his Lucky Strike BAR Honda teammate Takuma Sato grabbed a third place in the U.S. Grand Prix.

After 11 of 18 races this season, Button is in third place in the Drivers Championship, and BAR Honda is in third place in the Constructors Championship.

Things clearly are clicking now for BAR and Honda; proof came earlier this season when six-time F1 champ Michael Schumacher called Button and BAR Honda his main concerns.

The days of building your own chassis, buying an engine, plugging it in, and going out and winning races and championships in F1 are long gone. Chassis and engine need to be integrated to a high degree.

When it returned to F1 in 2000, part of Honda's deal with BAR was that it would become involved in the design and development of the chassis. Honda chassis engineers are now based at BAR's factory in Brackley, England. The new contract calls for an even closer relationship.

"It's both an engine and a joint chassis development agreement," said Otmar Szafnauer, an American who is the vice president of Honda Racing Development. "We are forever working closer with BAR, and we are identifying our individual strengths, and we are sub-dividing the work such that the things Honda are strong at we focus on, and the things BAR are strong at, they focus on.

"In the future you will see us working even closer together. We are now studying bringing more engineers from Japan into Brackley and vice-versa."

Currently, BAR employs about 400 people. Honda has about 25 chassis engineers living in England and working at BAR, and additional staff at Honda's F1 headquarters in England. Back at its F1 base in Japan, Honda employs about 250 people, 50 of whom work on the chassis program.

BAR can also access the resources available at Honda's R&D development center Tochigi in Japan.

"It makes the team have resources to punch way beyond its weight," said BAR team boss David Richards.

So will BAR Honda win a World Championship in the next few years? Not if Ferrari, Williams BMW, Renault or McLaren Mercedes have anything to say about it. The competition is very, very strong these days. And BAR Honda still has to win its first Grand Prix.

On the other hand, BAR and Honda really are on a roll, and the stability of their renewed long-term partnership should only increase that momentum.

Dan Knutson covers Formula One for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.