Honda F1 Project 1999: Inglorious endingWritten by 'Αγγελος Φωτσεινός
Translated by Giannis Binas
The makers of Honda can be proud for the rich racing heritage of their company, which is full of victories and titles in many forms of motorsport.
It’s reasonable of course that Formula 1 is among the series where Honda has made its own glorious history, whether by taking part as works team or by providing engine units.
The biggest part of success was achieved in the period of 1983-1992, during which the company was the engine provider to the following teams: Spirit (1983), Williams (1983-1987), Lotus (1987-1988), McLaren (1982-1992), Tyrrell (1991).
6 consecutive world constructors’ titles, in cooperation with Williams (1986-1987) and McLaren (1988-1991) and 5 drivers’ championships, who used the Japanese engines, one from Nelson Piquet (1987) and Alain Prost (1989) and three for the Japanese engineers’ favorite, ever memorable Ayrton Senna (1988, 1990, 1991).
In the end of 1992, Honda ceased to provide engines and withdrew from Formula 1.
In Tokyo’s headquarters though, there was always a dream for a Honda works team that would win as a constructor its rival car industries.
Although the team’s involvement as works during 1964-1968 was marked by just two race wins and a few podium places, in the middle of the 90s there were strong rumors that Honda was to return a few years after its withdrawal with a works project.
And while during 1993-1994 things were limited to a few kilometers of private testing, with Satoru Nakajima and the back then president of the firm Nobuhiko Kawamoto at the pedals of RC100 and RC101 mules, in 1998 the project was much more organized.
In 1998 then, Honda Racing Developments (HRD) program took shape.
England’s Surrey was chosen as the program’s base and Harvey Postlethwaite with Rupert Manwairing, as managers, freshly arrived from Tyrrell.
Postlethwaite took over as technical director-chief designer and Manwairing as mechanical director.
The single-seater was to be built by the Italian Dallara, as the planned facilities in Bracknell, near Tyrrell’s plant in Ockham, were still at an early construction stage.
Right after Tyrrell’s permanent withdrawal in the end of 1998, its 120 remaining employees were released.
60 of them, were hired by their old acquaintance Postlethwaite, in HRD.
In December 15 of the same year, the first shakedown arrived for Honda RA099.
Dallara built 2 chassis which were equipped with Mugen-Honda’s engine, an engine that was used that year by Jordan.
In Varano’s circuit in Italy, Jos Verstappen performed the first kilometers of RA099.
A few days later, in a press conference that took place in Tokyo, the expected was announced: Honda was to return to the grid in 2000, as a works team. Dallara built another 4 chassis, out of which, 2 were eventually used in 1999’s January-February winter testing.
In both Mugello and Jerez, Verstappen’s pace, who now used a brand new Honda-made V10, matched Stewart’s and Benetton’s, showing that the project had potential.
Nevertheless, Honda’s governing board members appeared reluctant.
President Kawamoto was in favor of the project, but the rest of the members preferred Honda’s return as an engine provider to BAR rather than a works team, for they feared lack of success.
Postlethwaite counter-proposed that the HRD entered as a private team, in which Honda would provide engine units.
If the results were promising, HRD would then turn into a works team with an official note.
He was, you see, convinced that RA099 was a single-seater with broad evolution margins.
In the end, an unexpected incident gave this project’s any chances the final blow.
In April 15, 1999, the program’s ‘soul’, Harvey Postlethwaite, aged 55, passed away, due to a heart attack, amidst the winter testing of Barcelona.
HRD did not take part in the next planned test, in Jerez, and in the beginning of May, Honda announced the abandoning of the project and the closing of a deal with BAR.
HRD’s employees were informed of this decision in the final test of RA099, also in Barcelona.
There was a rumor that Flavio Briatore would cover, with a team of his own, Honda’s now empty place in the grid.
The scenario told that HRD’s ‘orphan’ single-seaters would end up in Briatore’s hands and would be equipped with Supertec’s engines.
In the end, Briatore returned to Benetton and the scenario was not implemented.
Similar rumors about a purchase of the RA099s either by John McDonald (RAM’s owner in the past) or by David Hunt (Jame’s brother and last owner of Lotus) were also proven to be inaccurate.
The project’s abandonment completely turned Jos Verstappen’s plans upside down.
The Dutch waited to be one of Honda’s two drivers for 2000, having signed a three year contract with the team.
This inglorious finale of the project left him hanging, but only for a while: following the suggestions by the crew of Mugen-Honda, in the end of July, Verstappen found himself testing the Jordan 199 in Silverstone.
Amidst intense speculation on Damon Hill’s retirement from action after the British GP, and with very few available drivers, Verstappen appeared as the best choice.
However, the Dutch’s times were falling considerably shorter than Hill’s and, additionally, the Brit decided to retire in the end of the season.
Finally, ‘Jos the Boss, reached an agreement with Arrows for 2000, returning there after his first presence in 1996.
translated by Giannis Binas