I don’t know who is at the very top of the Honda F1 food chain but I suspect this person might have misleading memories of the late 80s when Honda wiped the floor. Even when falling short and Ayrton Senna was complaining loudly, they had enough manpower, technology and clout to find a fix, almost overnight.
Honda have long since realised that F1 in the current era is an entirely different proposition from every angle. The only common factor would seem to be open and justified criticism from the leading driver.
When Honda switched to McLaren for 1988, they had already established the power benchmark through back-to-back constructors’ championships with Williams. Winning 15 of their first 16 races with McLaren merely strengthened the belief of invincibility through hard work and, it has to be said, marginal competition compared to today.
Even when times became really tough in 1991, Honda somehow pulled through — but not before Senna had caused a fair amount of oriental bowing and backing towards the door by harassed members of the proud motor giant.
Ayrton had not been convinced by a voluntary switch from V10 to V12 (happy days when such a thing was possible!). Doubts had been in his mind from the moment he tested the new engine and the misgivings carried through to the first race in Phoenix — where he then told all and sundry that Honda appeared to have done nothing to cure the shortfall. Cue some poor bloke working 24/7 back in Japan falling on his metaphorical sword.
On paper it may have looked good as Senna won the first three races by exercising his massive talent — much as Fernando Alonso is doing now, but with less to show for it. Being a realist, Ayrton knew a continuing power deficit would eventually negate anything he could do at the wheel as the opposition, headed by Nigel Mansell’s Williams-Renault, caught up.
A graphic demonstration of Senna’s worst fears came as he landed on his head at the exit of Peraltada after trying to take the ferocious banked turn in Mexico in a higher gear. “Honda are working hard to improve the engine but the Williams chassis is much better than ours. If we don’t get some new equipment then we’re going to have trouble on our hands” was the public expression of his irritation. In private, he really let go: “You are losing me the world championship” was the stark summary of his debrief with the wretched Honda project chief.
The frustration is probably much the same today. But here’s the difference: regulatory freedom in terms of limitless testing and development allowed a response Honda can only dream of now.
Following a succession of unreliable races, a hurriedly scheduled test at Silverstone involved a cast of thousands — or so it seemed as Senna, his team-mate Gerhard Berger and test drivers Allan McNish, Jonathan Palmer and Stefan Johansson were part of a 58-strong delegation charged with sorting things out. The massive effort paid off, Senna taking his third and final title in Japan in late October.
In this latest phase of Honda’s association with F1, the firm that assisted with six Constructors’ Championships appears to have completely underestimated, not so much the technical challenge, but the effect of arriving a day late if not a dollar short. Catching up in this super-competitive era is like hoping to win the 100 metres final after being slow out of the blocks. Not even the blunt and painful coercion of Ayrton Senna, a characteristic adjunct to his brilliance, would have been enough to get them out of this.