The 2021 Formula One season concluded over the weekend. That means it was Honda’s final F1 race in an on-again, off-again factory effort that spanned over half a century. This time, though it seems fairly certain that the exit will be a permanent off.
Honda’s first toe dipped into Formula One came at a time when the company had barely begun making four-wheeled transportation. But even as home-market cars like the 1963 S500 barely cracked 50 horsepower, Honda was engineering an unprecedented V12 at a time when most F1 cars were equipped with V8s.
The following year, Honda entered its first F1 race, something even the far more experienced carbuilders at Nissan and Toyota didn’t dare do. By the end of the 1965 season Honda had won its first Grand Prix, shocking the establishment.
Honda’s second age of F1 greatness came in the 80s, just as Honda’s cars were becoming accepted around the world as some of the best that money could buy. A perfect storm of technological prowess, booming sales, and the recruitment of one of F1’s all-time greatest drivers, Ayrton Senna, put Honda-powered cars on one of the greatest streaks of dominance in the sport’s history.
For the entire second half of the decade over six consecutive seasons, Honda engines were the only ones winning Constructors’ Championships, first with Williams-Honda from 1986-87 and then McLaren Honda from 1988-91. Best of all, the technologies developed in the arena of motorsport were also finding their way into humble Civics and Accords.
Most owners probably had no clue, as they commuted to work and supermarkets, that the double wishbone suspensions and variable valve-timing beneath hidden in their fuel-efficient and reliable Hondas were derived from the highest echelons of motorsport.
Sadly, Honda could never recapture that magic in their third and fourth attempts at F1 glory. The 2000-08 run fell short of past successes, and one could argue that the effort was less relevant than before. By then, Honda’s road cars had reverted to a plain-Jane MacPherson strut suspension and variable valve timing was no longer the sci-fi tech that it was, having been adopted by many other automakers since. In short, the was less of a link between Honda’s racing machines and its production cars, but in an alternate history where the global financial crisis didn’t strike, Honda probably would have continued in F1.
The final round began in 2015 with Honda once again entering the sport as an engine supplier. However, this time they were completely outclassed and out-engineered by the established players. It was quite a fall from grace for a name once so powerful in the F1 world. Last year, with little possibility of success on the horizon, Honda announced that the 2021 season would be its last, saying that the compmany was shifting its priorities (and budgets) to focus on alternative energy technology.
In a somewhat bittersweet turn of events, engineers actually continued to develop the motor in full force, despite knowing that there was no way to continue the program regardless of the results. And the managed to turn it around. After partnering with Red Bull post an embarrassing split from the former dream team of McLaren-Honda, in the final year the engines actually did become competitive. Rookie Max Verstappen was able to pilot his Red Bull-Honda to a Drivers’ Championship over the weekend.
In the end, Honda was redeemed, even if Verstappen’s victory will be marred by poor and inconsistent calls. As we transition into a new era of road cars, though, an expensive F1 program doesn’t really make sense. The buyers of Hondas today don’t care what kind of suspensions underpin their cars. Even worse, priorities like handling and steering feel — or “the way it drives” in layman’s terms — have been replaced with connectivity and cargo room, leaving the traditional metrics at which Honda excelled in the dust.
So even if Honda was able to bid the sport farewell with chins up, there doesn’t seem to be a good reason for them to ever return. It’s a sad finale to a glorious legacy that began with Soichiro Honda and a bunch of dudes kneeling around a shop floor figuring out how they were going to take over the world.