1983 Spirit-Honda: Breathing Dreams like Air

by Jennie Mowbray

I am a home-schooling mum of four, though two have now grown up and graduated and I have only 16-year-old twins left at home. I get my excitement by working part-time as a doctor in Accident and Emergency. In my few spare hours I research the cars and engineers, drivers and tracks of Formula One history… combining the science of engineering with the art of design…inspired by poetry and literature.
- Jennie Mowbray


Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!
Whose heart hath ne'er within him burn'd,
As home his footsteps he hath turn'd,
    From wandering on a foreign strand!
~Sir Walter Scott~

On the fifth lap, the car gasped and collapsed breathless at the side of the track, failure of a turbo seal resulting in Stefan Johansson’s immediate relegation from racer to spectator. Bitterly disappointing, it gave little portent of the subsequent domination of the fledgeling team’s ensconced Honda engine. The 1983 Race of Champions at Brands Hatch was the first Formula One race appearance for Spirit-Honda and the last non-championship Formula One race held. Despite the appellation,“Race of Champions”, many teams chose to dispatch their lead drivers to Le Castellet for tyre testing in preparation for the upcoming French Grand Prix,rather than risk inclement spring weather for little gain in Britain. At the last minute, Danny Sullivan,the heady experience of two Formula One races under his belt, was called up to drive for Tyrrell. Arriving jetlagged and weary from the United States on Thursday, he qualified in fifth, 2.6 seconds slower than the reigning world champion Keke Rosberg, whose Cosworth powered Williams was on pole. All the drivers in front of Sullivan on the grid were winners in Formula One.Two were champions. Spirit-Honda was bringing up the rear, a sluggish nineteen seconds off the paceat least during qualifying.Two Honda powertrains had already succumbed to the strain of practice, their previous testing giving no indication for this unfortunate propensity for self-destruction.
Sullivan rocketed off the line, a shove from behind forcing him into an ambitious pass around the outside of Alan Jones’ Arrows. He was now in third. Sullivan was further aided in his forward progress by the voracious appetite of Rene Arnoux’s Ferrari as it hungrily chewed through multiple sets of Goodyear tyres which were not enjoying the abrasive combination of cold weather and turbo power. Finally running out of usable rubber he would be forced to retire from the race, his only consolation was setting the fastest lap before he did so.Danny was now in second. He spent the last fifteen laps behind Keke, trying to harass his elder into making an error on his blistering tyres.The world champion and the rookie finished less than five-tenths of a second apart.In 1985 Danny Sullivan won the Indy 500,notwithstanding spinning in his initial attempt to pass the then race leader, Mario Andretti. Here-caught Andretti twenty laps later, and on his second attempt, passed without incident. In 1986 Honda won the first of six Constructor’s Championships as an engine supplier.
It had been more than fourteen years sincea Honda Formula One engine had fired up in anger. When Sociero Honda quit Honda’s participation in Formula One at the end of 1968, engineer Nobuhiko Kawamoto quit coming to work. It took two months for his boss to persuade him to reconsider his career options, dangling the carrot of cutting-edge engine research in front of him. Kawamoto was cut from the same cloth as Sociero, racing a priority even while doing his engineering degree. He recklessly spent his government scholarship money on ever faster machinery…this second source of income unbeknown to his parents who continued paying his tuition, room and board. Later in life, he confessed his misdemeanour and paid them back, but the racing bug had bitten him, with lifelong consequences.Joining Honda’s Research and Development Center in 1963, fresh out of university, he was involved with the inaugural Formula One team from its inception.

With racing no longer an item on the agenda, Kawamoto joined the development team for the CVCC (Compound Vortex Controlled Combustion) engine. Inspired by the ideas on stratified charge by engineer extraordinaire Harry Ricardo over fifty years before, Honda developed a cylinder that had two intake valves into two combustion chambers. The main chamber was filled with a lean mixture of fuel that would never explode of its own accord. The addition was a small chamber next to the spark plug where a stoichiometrically correct amount of fuel was injected. The ignition of the fuel in this enclosure resulted in an explosion which then spread through a perforated metal plate to ignite the lean fuel mixture in the main chamber, resulting in near perfect detonation of the hydrocarbon. So pure were the exhaust fumes of the new engine that it enabled Honda to avoid the necessity of a power-robbing(10-15%) and expensive($350) catalytic converter.The Honda Civic was the receptacle for this environmentally friendly powertrain. Added to its clean and green credentials, it was also the most fuel-efficient car in the United States and its successduring the mid-70’s fuel crisis propelled Honda into the limelight,and their bank balances well into the black.

Step by step Kawamoto ascended the ladder of seniority in research and development. Unfortunately, entry into this higher echelon of command meant that his presence was required at Honda management board meetings or, perhaps more accurately titled, bored meetings. Threatened with the termination of his employment for non-attendance, he used his “downtime” to scribble design ideas as the tedious issues of management and sales were discussed around him. His dreams were not of economical and ecological engines. His dreams were of racing, with no consideration as yet for the environment or financial impact on the company’s future. In 1979 Kawamoto persuaded the president of Honda, Tadashi Kume, to contemplate a return to Formula One.

In Japan, if you wished to work hard, you went on holidays. In that way, your time was your own to do with as you chose, with the added benefit that nobody really knew what you were up to. With no nosy trade union officials making sure you were keeping to the mandatory 48-hour working week, you were free to toil uninterrupted, taking only the bare necessity of time for eating and sleeping. Kawamoto later said, “I went to a hotel with Mr Ichida as my assistant, just as I had accompanied Mr Kume to a hotel room in 1965. I told Ichida that he could sleep, eat and drink at any time, but we would not be going back to the factory until we had finished the design.” Three weeks later Kawamoto presented Kume with his engine conception bought to fruition.

Every engine manufacturer had added to the coppers in Ford’s purse by purchasing their own Cosworth DFV toscrutinise for its hidden secrets. But how do you improve on perfection, especially when technology has moved on? Kawamoto wanted to construct a 2-litre, 6-cylinder DFV. This would eventually have to be shrunk to 1.5 litres and then turbocharged in pursuance of the horsepower needed to be competitive in Formula One. Even Ford found this was not plain sailing when they tried to build their own turbocharged engine during the 1980’s…which struggled first to be reliable…and then competitive.
Kawamoto’s starting premise was that power is proportional to the piston area, a maxim that was being hotly debated even in 1912. Bill Boddy wrote in Motorsport Magazine about “a classic discussion which took place before the First World War between the great L. H. Pomeroy Snr, designer of such famous motor cars as the "Prince Henry" and 30/98 Vauxhalls, and the race-loving Louis Coatalen, brilliant Chief Engineer of the Sunbeam Motor Car Co of Wolverhampton. Pomeroy contended that the short-stroke engine was lighter and less likely to overheat and that more power and efficiency could be attained by adopting a maximum piston area, while Coatalen believed that unless an engine was so large that no chassis would accommodate it, the stresses feared by his rival would never be reached. ”Pomeroy's premise eventually won out, and (as far as I’m aware) all racing engines for many decades have been oversquare.

Dale Kistemaker – Honda F1 Engine Installation – British Grand Prix 1983
The target of every racing engine is to “breathe, burn and turn” better than their rivals. Breathing requires air getting into the cylinder. The bigger the intake valves, the more air that can get in. Burning requires not only fuel but also the perfect proportions of air and fuel. The more fuel, the bigger the bang. But with more fuel, you also needed more air, so back to the first point. The burning of the fuel results in an explosion which turns the crankshaft. The longer the stroke of the piston, the more energy lost in friction. The shorter the piston length,the quicker the piston can move up and down without overheating, and the more times the crankshaft can turn. Breathing, burning and turning were all aided by a large piston diameter and a short stroke length. Just as essential was to “keep on turning for the length of the race!”  And as Honda found out – the engine may seem indestructible during testing but fail catastrophically when stressed under the extremities of race conditions.

The Cosworth DFV had a bore of 85.67 and a stroke of 64.77. The 4-cylinder BMW engine that dominated Formula Two was close to square with a bore of 89 and a stroke of 80.  The Honda Formula Two engine that Kawamoto designed had a bore of 90 and a stroke of 52.3. With a shorter stroke, higher revs were more accessible, but had Kawamoto got carried away with the maxim that if an over-square engine was good then bigger was better? Was there a point in which a sizable piston area started to work against you? Oversquare pistons gave lots of space for valves. It cut down on weight. It cut down on friction. What could be the drawbacks? Maybe power was proportional to the piston area, but eventually, there would be no further gains to be had, and the final result could be a loss of efficiency. Perhaps today this can be determined by a computer, but back then it could only be determined by trial and error. You could copy and have the same, or you could change the dimensions of your engine and risk losing instead of gaining.

Without wheels to propel and safe surrounds in which to situate the driver, an engine is only stationary sound and motion. Remembering the challenge of marrying an engine to a chassis during the 1960’s resulted in a conservative inception. Jack Brabham had raced Honda engines in his Formula Two car, the chassis the work of the multi-talented Ron Tauranac,and the Japanese knew Ron well. Tauranac was still building cars – his Ralt RT3 so dominant that Formula 3 could almost have been called Formula Ralt. Into a Formula Two Ralt RH6 went the Honda engine. A credible chassis was obligatory for accurately analysing any inherent strengths and weaknesses of the unseasoned engine. 

Motorsport magazine summed up Hondas debut in European Formula Two midway through the 1980 season.“A pointer for the forthcoming season was provided by the performance of the Ralt/Honda team at the recent Hockenheim finale. The works Ralt first appeared at Silverstone in mid-season with British hope Nigel Mansell at the wheel. Honda sent works engineers to tend its powerful V6 engine, and the project got off to a promising start. It took a step backwards when American Formula Atlantic driver Tom Gloy drove the car at Enna and Misano, but Mansell was back in the cockpit at Hockenheim and Geoff Lees was given a second car. Testing and development of the car had obviously paid dividends and the two Englishmen were front runners until Lees suffered a puncture and Mansell suffered a fuel pick-up problem. Next year the Ralt/Honda looks likely to be the car to beat.” What wasn’t mentioned was that Mansell came second at Hockenheim, Honda’s first podium, despite the fuel pick-up problem. The Ralt-Honda was definitely the car to beat.Geoff Lees won the 1981 European Formula Two championship.
Despite their achievement, Honda was nervous. They wanted more control, and they wanted less competition. Ralt had other customers to provide for,and Honda was just one of many. Satoru Nakajima employed a Honda-powered March 812 chassis to good effect in the local Japanese Formula Two championship. Honda approached John Wickham who was liaising between the March factory and their myriad Japanese customers. With no desire to add to the complexity of the venture by entering as a full works team, they were fortunate to stumble on a competent team managerand a blue-ribbon designer, both looking for an adventure. Gordon Coppuck was bored…saddled with trouble shooting handling issues of the current March chassis rather than the thrill of designing a new creation with which to compete. With the hiring of Wickham and Coppuck, Spirit-Honda was born. Honda provided the engine, technical backup, the workshop in Slough and a small amount of cash. With a deal from Bridgestone tyres and Marlboro filling in the financial shortfall they were set to go racing.

Ron Dennis had arrived at McLaren in 1980, bringing John Barnard with him, and Gordon Coppuck, with McLaren since their inception, had departed to March. As the designer of the double championship winning McLaren M23, it should come as no surprise that theSpirit-Honda Formula Two car looked like a mini McLaren, its white nose and front wingtopped by a “Red Roof”, mimicking a Marlboro packet.Suddenly it all made sense. Having paid little attention to cigarette packets in the past,it had never dawned on me that the Spirit and McLaren livery had not been designed because the geometric red and white markings made it stand out from the crowd. It was intended to look like a fast-moving cigarette packet - because that is where many of the millions of dollars that enabled them to go racing were coming from.

Marlboro covered the salary of their two drivers, both armed with above average credentials. Stefan Johannson and Thierry Boutsen had each won two races the year before in Formula Two. Boutsen had finished second to Geoff Lees in the championship. The new team showed their inherent speed at their first outing at Silverstone when Johannson grabbed pole but was unfortunately unable to turn it into points. Their Bridgestone tyres were only reliable by their unreliability, resulting in multiple retirements due to punctures. By the end of the season, the team had collected eight pole positions, three race wins (all for Boutsen) and had remained championship contenders until the very end. Going into the last race Boutsen had a small edge over the March-BMW duo of Corrado Fabi and Johnny Cecotto, but a sixth-place finish dropped him back to third in the championship when he conservatively started with wet tyres on a drying track. He eventually had to pit for new rubber. Corrado Fabi won the raceby employing the high-risk strategy of slick tyres despite the still slippery surface. With only a handful of points and some good rubber away from winning the 1982 Formula Two championship, Honda was well satisfied. Now to turbocharge the engine and try their luck in Formula One. Ralt would continue with Honda Formula Two engines and win the next two championship titles…first with Jonathan Palmer and then with Mike Thackwell.Satoru Nakajima would win five of six championships between 1981 and 1986 in Japanese Formula Two with his March-Honda.

Only running one car in their first season in Formula One, Honda chose Stefan Johansson as their pilot. Despite no race wins, he had set more pole positions and had suffered more mechanical misfortune. Honda’s Formula Two engine was first shrunk to 1.5 litres…keeping the same bore of 90mm but decreasing the stroke still further to a minuscule 39mm. The chassis was merely an upgraded Spirit 201…stretched where needed to fit in the V6, its double-turbo and bigger tyres. After the race of champions, they took time out for further work on engine longevity and arrived for the last half of the season at Silverstone. Their best-placed finish would be a seventh place at Zandvoort, Johansson finishing at the lead of four cars two laps down from the Ferrari of race winner Renae Arnoux.

In 1982 Ferrari had won the first Constructor’s Championship for a turbocharged engine, though, due to the tragic death of Didier Pironi at the German Grand Prix, Keke Rosberg and Williams had managed to eke out one last Driver’s Championship for the Ford Cosworth DFV. Renault had started the seismic shift towards turbo power, taking more than two years before their first win at the 1979 French Grand Prix, but now everyone who didn’t have turbo power was trying to get it. The BMW turbo had won its first race...the 1982 Canadian Grand Prix…powering Nelson Piquet in a Brabham BT52. Porsche (financed by TAG), Alfa Romeo, and Honda all joined in 1983. Williams was desperate for a replacement for their now obsolete DFV – they would win their last race with it in 1983. By the time Spirit-Honda appeared on track at Silverstone, Honda was already in negotiation with Williams to supply them with engines for 1984. Williams was the stuff of Honda’s dreams. They were the real deal, with a World Champion driver and enough money and engineers to keep development pace with Ferrari, McLaren and the rest. The last race of the year was at Kyalami. Spirit-Honda were absent,and Williams-Ford had evolved into Williams-Honda. Keke Rosberg finished fifth, giving Honda its first points in Formula One.
Honda may have won their first race with Williams in 1984…but the engine continued to frustrate both its drivers and engineers. The hugely oversquare bore/stroke ratio allowed too much heat into the piston, leading to multiple engine failures. It was also disadvantaged by a narrow usable range – its steep power curve combined with turbo lag causing it to be almost undrivable at times.William’s less than hoped for results could not all be blamed on its Honda engine. Insufficient rigidity of the chassis was also stressing the engine and further compounding the handling difficulties. In 1985 the bore/stroke ratio was decreased to 82/47.The engine was further tweaked in 1986, the ratio now 79/50.8. With this engine, Honda would win the first of its six Constructor’s Championships, powering first Williams and then McLaren. Maybe there was more to the equation than power is proportional to the piston area…

Even car manufacturers need to be able to “breathe, burn and turn”.  Business thrives on the potent mix of fiery passion and ice-cold logic.Those in charge need to both motivate and inspire as well as to reign in excessive spending and innovation when necessary. When times get tough, the first thing that is needed is to take a deep breath. In 1990 the Japanese auto market began a three-year downhill slide. Sales dropped dramatically in the United States, Honda’s biggest overseas market. There was the need for money to burn. Funds were needed for research as cars were now required to become ever more fuel efficient. There was the need to turn out cars that their customers would want to buy…cars that were suitable for the current political and economic environment. They also needed to turn their R&D dollars into profits rather than spectacular speed to stun spectators for fifteen weekends a year on track. They needed to find the perfect ratio between passion and logic. Enough passionto pique interest…enough logic to persuade buyers to part with their hard-earnedcash.

One day, almost ten years after their return to Formula One, Kawamoto would find himself in the same position as Honda’s founder in 1968…having to make the seemingly impossible choice between continuing to race and the future of the company. Honda was particularly vulnerable during the economic downturn. They were small. They appealed to a niche market…but not so niche that they could ask hundreds of thousands of dollars for their wares. They experimented and developed technological advances in-house rather than the cheaper alternative of buying patents from overseas manufacturers.In September 1992 Kawamoto pulled the plug on Formula One. It was time to return to their engineering roots. The 100 engineers and 80 million dollars it took to compete in Formula One were going to be redirected to focus on the fuel-efficient vehicles that would be needed for them to survive in the years to come. It would enable Honda to retain their independence rather than be forced into a merger with either a bigger Japanese manufacturer or join forces with an American manufacturer.

The last time Honda quit Formula One Kawamoto hadn’t turned up to work for two months. But this time it was different. This time he was the boss. Kawamoto said, “What I did from 1990 to 1998 when I was given the role as the president was that I saw a dangerous hairpin turn right in front of us, and thus I turned the steering wheel with fierce desperation. I turned the steering wheel because I knew that if we kept on going, without doing anything, we would have gone off the track, and in the worst case would have had a crash. However, Honda, which had grown very big, was like a vehicle with very bad understeer and did not turn itself no matter how much I turned the steering wheel. Facing a hair pin turn, I had to down shift, use some braking, and turn the steering wheel. Even when I started feeling the vehicle finally turning, a hairpin turn made it unstable and caused slower speed due to a tail slide or the tires bending in the burns. So, I tried to make corrections by using counter steering. I tried to clear the dangerous hairpin turn as quickly as possible.”

“Still as I view each well-known scene,
Think what is now, and what hath been,
Seems as, to me, of all bereft,
Sole friends thy woods and streams were left;
And thus, I love them better still,
Even in extremity of ill.”
~Sir Walter Scott~

Brabham - Ralt - Honda: The Ron Tauranac Story by Mike Lawrence
Heading Photo and Main Photo by Martin Lee: Stefan Johansson - Spirit 201 at the 1983 Race of Champions at Brands Hatch

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