Racing is in Honda’s DNA
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Honda Canada President Jerry Chenkin is fond of quoting his company’s founder: “As Mr. Honda said, ‘Without racing, there would be no Honda.’ ”
Soichiro Honda, who died in 1991, was the industrialist who founded the Honda Motor Co. in 1948 and firmly believed that racing helped improve the company’s cars and motorcycles.
From Formula One to karts and everything in between, Honda has a proud and deep history in motorsports.
Undoubtedly, the most famous of that history is the marque’s partnership with McLaren that carried Ayrton Senna to three World Drivers’ Championships between 1988 and 1991.
That partnership will be renewed next season as Honda returns to Formula 1 for the first time since 2008, after being lured back by the sport’s new technical regulations.
Given that McLaren’s current powerplant partner is Mercedes, which has been utterly dominant under the new regulations thus far, and that the sport’s other engine manufacturers will all have a full-season head start, Honda is certain to be under intense scrutiny.
In typical Japanese fashion, though, a steady course has been plotted and is being executed with precision.
“With regard to the targets we have set ourselves, we are making satisfactory progress,” says Yasuhisa Arai, senior managing officer and director of Honda research and development.
“By around spring, we hope to be running tests on our second batch of engines, and these will form the basis for our final race-spec engines.”
That same systematic approach has naturally shaped Honda’s motorsport strategy worldwide. Here in North America, racing activities are overseen by Honda Performance Development, a division formed when Honda decided to get involved in open-wheel racing by entering the CART Indy car series in 1994.
In its early days, HPD existed simply to rebuild engines that were designed in Japan and shipped to North America. Over time, its role expanded incrementally to include increasing development and localization.
Today, HPD’s hallmark program is the current generation of Verizon IndyCar Series engines, which were designed from the ground up at the HPD headquarters in Santa Clarita, Calif., and are also built and maintained there.
President Art St. Cyr explains that the division’s steady growth and expansion of responsibilities were very deliberate.
“It was always part of the growth plan to do that,” he says, “and to expand into other racing series as well.”
To that end, HPD entered the American Le Mans series in 2007 and won at least one prototype class team championship in every year from 2009 until the series was merged into GRAND-AM at the end of last season.
Honda continues to compete this year in the resulting TUDOR United SportsCar Championship, in the Prototype class, and will see action at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park July 10-13.
Unlike in IndyCar, for which engines are purpose-built, the Prototype class in TUDOR conforms to the same rules as the European LMP2 class, which requires engines to be production-based.
That means that apart from adding turbochargers and making some minor tweaks, the same V6 engine design that can come in a Honda Accord or Acura MDX also competes in professional sports car racing.
“It was a joint development project between HPD and (Honda R&D Americas in) Ohio,” says Allen Miller, leader of sports car engines for HPD. “They knew the base engine, we knew race engines, and we worked together to put together a package.”
HPD’s development work isn’t limited to powerplants. The group has developed several generations of open-cockpit prototype chassis, and a new closed-cockpit coupe chassis was recently announced for the 2015 racing season.
HPD is also working on a customized set of wings and sidepods to complement the Dallara chassis in IndyCar, as it launches its aero kit development program next year.
On top of all of that, HPD also oversees Honda’s involvement in other levels of motorsport in North America, including the Continental Tire SportsCar Championship, Pirelli World Challenge, SCCA, F1600, USAC Midgets and Quarter Midgets, rally racing and karting.
This is an enormous amount of work and investment for an auto maker to put into a program that isn’t directly related to selling cars. So, what’s in it for Honda?
The first and most obvious benefit is the natural proving ground that racing provides. HPD gathers a ton of data on the durability and performance of its components, and regularly shares that information with the R&D division.
“A lot of the development data that we have, the things that we see in our testing, the responses that we get from changes, we try to communicate with the engineers in R&D and relate that to a lot of the challenges and responses that they get in their own testing,” says Mark Crawford, leader for HPD’s IndyCar engine program.
“It all adds to the collective database. We make a lot more power and we rev a lot higher, so we’re able to fill out part of the spectrum that maybe, they on their own, wouldn’t be able to do. Likewise, they complete part of the picture for us.”
Racing also helps Honda’s internal operations by honing its own corporate mentality and strategies.
“Racing builds better products, and it teaches you to problem solve,” Miller says. “You have to get it right, and if you don’t, you fail. If you’re not on time, you fail. If you don’t make a good product, you fail. It teaches people to respond quickly and appropriately.”
Ultimately, Honda sees its participation in motorsports as being integral to the image the company wants to convey to its customers.
“Racing is in Honda’s DNA,” St. Cyr says. “We always want to look at how we can showcase our technology, how we can showcase our engineering skill, by winning races.
“Racing is fun and exciting, and it’s all of the things we want people to associate with Honda.”
Racing and Honda
At this summer’s two-race Honda Indy Toronto, July 18-20, Ontario Honda dealers will once again be presenting Fan Friday (with free entry) in support of Make a Wish Canada. They’ll be asking for donations at the gate in support of the charity.
Honda Canada and James Hinchcliffe, an Oakville native and three-time race winner in the Verizon IndyCar Series, have formed a one-year partnership that will see Hinchcliffe tapped to promote the Honda brand across the country.
Honda Canada and Oakville's James Hinchcliffe have formed a one-year partnership that will see Hinchcliffe promote the brand across the country.
The agreement came about after Hinchcliffe’s team, Andretti Autosport, made the switch to Honda engines for the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series season, and was announced at the Canadian International Auto Show in February.
“I’m going to be helping with a lot of promotion for them, doing a lot of charity work for them,” Hinchcliffe says. “They’ve been such a big supporter of IndyCar and the race in Toronto specifically. It’s so cool to be part of the family. I’m really looking forward to it.”
Although the focus in recent years has been on upper-level professional motorsport — IndyCar, in particular — Honda Canada promoted and sponsored one of this country’s most famous grassroots racing championships, the Honda-Michelin Challenge Series.
Launched in the mid-1970s (and revived for a year in 2004), the series ran for 17 years and featured street-legal Hondas that racers could drive to the track (a car, incidentally, they might also drive back and forth to work or to the grocery store), tape over the headlights, go racing and then turn around and drive home afterward.
It is still missed.