Back then things were different. In the early days at Honda vehicle testing was carried out on public roads, just as it was by the various automobile and motorcycle manufacturers around the world, and while this worked well for the mass produced vehicles of the day they needed more for the racing motorcycles the company was starting to produce. With the announcement in 1956 that Honda was going to enter the world-renowned 1958 Isle of Man TT motorcycle races the company decided that they needed a better way of testing the bikes, and as such took out a lease on a some Ministry of Construction land near Yamato which became the Arakawa Test Course. The lease was to run until 1979.
In 1972, with seven years remaining on the lease, Honda started the process of finding and developing an alternative site for testing, which had become an integral part of vehicle development for their production vehicles as well as their racing counterparts. A suitable site was found in the Tochigi prefecture and a two year construction process created the Tochigi Proving Centre, which opened in April 1979.
The centre has variations of almost every type of road imaginable, and the centrepiece of the site is the four kilometre, four lane oval course built for extreme testing of performance and racing vehicles. Two long flat straights are joined by two banked turns which reach an angle of forty two degrees, far steeper than any race track and at an incline of such magnitude that it is impossible to walk upright across the banking.
Jenson Button, driver for the BAR Honda Formula One team, was given a NSX-R for the day to drive around the track after the Japanese Grand Prix last year, and this is the story of that day.
Jenson Button: "Well first of all I drove the car at Motegi (a road track and oval course also owned by Honda) – I drove it around the circuit, which is great fun because you could really feel the handling of the car and everything, and it was the first time I'd really drove around a circuit where I thought it handles really well. Then we went to Tochigi and I drove the Type R, the really sporty one, it's a lightweight sort of racing version, and in a straight line I thought 'yeah this is great, this is good' and then I got to the banking and I thought 'oh my God' – I thought I was going to fall off, because I'd never been on a banking before!
"And as soon as the car turned on its side it's such a rush it was unbelievable – it was the biggest rush I've ever had, more than a Formula One car, more than anything – because the banking is I think 42 degrees or something. And it was such an amazing feeling being at that angle at full speed, because we were doing I think 170 mph, and the barrier on the outside must be about ten inches away or something! So it was an amazing feeling, feeling every bump in the car, and whoever I had as a passenger in the car couldn't stop laughing! I couldn't either! It was just an amazing feeling being at that speed on such a banking and being so close to the wall – it was great."
How did you hit it – did you go flat?
Button: "No you can't really, because if you go flat there's a bump on the way in and because it's that to that (Button moves his hand from flat to very steep) – you'd hit the oval and the rear would have just snapped. You just have a slight lift on the way in – you turn in, slight lift, back on the power again – and the average speed must have been about 155 mph or something. Around there, in a road car, it's not too bad.
"And we were trying to get as high as possible, as close to the barrier as possible, but the thing is, because it's so quick, the barrier's just flying by and it's really, really difficult to see. It's only about that high (Button holds his hands about 12 inches apart) – I don't know why it's even there, because it's not going to do anything!"
So what's to stop you going over?
Button: "Well, me! But I've heard that if you take your hands off the steering wheel at 100 mph round there, 160 km/h, it'll just go around the corner – it won't fly off, it won't go down, it'll just stick to the road and go around the corner because of the angle of the banking. So yeah, I tried it at that speed, at a hundred, and I just went like that (Button mimes releasing the wheel for a nanosecond and laughs) and went 'I think it works' – you know, I like driving with my hands on the wheel, really!
"And at 155mph the car is great around there – you'd think in a road car it'd be bouncing around, but it was really smooth – it was great. And the thing is, when the banking is at that angle everything goes really heavy because you're being pushed into the road, which is something different from Formula One altogether, and the steering's really heavy because the car's being pushed into the ground so much you've got a lot of downforce on the tyres. It's amazing how different the car can feel from the straight to the banking."
So what do you see? When you're in a Formula One car on a flat road you see ground around you…
Button: "Well, except for the wheels – you've got the wheels in the way in a F1 car. But you can't see so much because it's such a steep banking the car's into the floor, and you can just about see around the banking – all you can see is about forty metres in front of you because the banking's so steep, and at such an angle, you can't see around. You're trying to look (Button crouches right down in his seat and looks up), you try to get down to look where you're going but you can't see anything, and that's what makes it even more scary. And then you really get a sense of the speed.
"It's all tarmac – you just get tarmac. Sixth gear, and you just stick it. It sticks to the road – you've just got to hope that nothing, that there are no bumps in the road or anything, and you just hold the steering wheel as lightly as possible. On the exit you get a little bit of oversteer as the banking comes right down, or it feels like oversteer because of the change in the gradient, so you slightly change the angle of the steering wheel, but apart from that you don't really do so much."
Have you ever seen that movie 'Grand Prix', the old one from the sixties? You know there's that bit with the banking – is it anything like that?
Button: "I don't know really. You need to go to Tochigi and check it out – it's just awesome – it's such a steep banking. It's steeper than any NASCAR race, I think, so even NASCARs don't race around anything that steep. So it's an experience – I don't think there's anything steeper."
What about the banking at Indy?
Button: "Nowhere near, nowhere near – it's like nothing, it's like a flat circuit in comparison – it's that difference, seriously."
Apparently you got out of the car and asked if your lap time was the record
Button: "Yeah, but I didn't know that a Formula One car had been around there, though! But it was great – I took Ken Hashimoto (Honda's head of chassis technology development) out on the circuit because he designed the NSX along with Ayrton Senna, and that was a great feeling - going around this oval in a car that was designed by Ayrton Senna and Hashimoto-san, who was sitting alongside me.
"When he first got in the car I thought I'll just take it easy but you could tell he wanted to go quicker, so I did – the second lap was flat out, and it was great – he wasn't able to talk, he just sat there smiling all the way around!"
The story goes that he once took a Williams out of the Honda musem and drove it on the Tochigi circuit, setting the circuit's lap record that day…
Button: "Yeah, he's the one who did the record - just a bit of an advantage driving an F1 car! Yeah, about eleven seconds quicker than me or something. I don't think many cars will beat it.
"On the last laps some birds got on the circuit, which was a bit scary - there were a couple of birds flying around, so they decided to call it a day because it could have been a bit dangerous. But it was such a rush – it was great."
What would a Formula One car be like on the banking?
Button: "It would awesome – I think that the amount of G-force you would pull would be out of this world compared to anything we're used to, because we're used to lateral G, which is very different to what you get there. It would be a big experience, and it would be like Eau Rouge, except for ten or fifteen seconds, so I think it'd be pretty tough!"
Any chance of taking one out there when you go back to Japan this year?
Button: "Cor, that'd be dangerous! But that'd be great, if you go straight from Suzuka to there, drive it around. I can't see why not!"
Is there ever a little bit of fear when you go flat out on the banking like that?
Button: "Yeah, a little bit, but that turns into excitement and adrenalin really, I think. If you didn't have fear you wouldn't have that adrenalin sort of feeling. It's like singers when they go on stage - they're nervous, but the adrenalin's pumping and they love it. I think if you haven't got any fear then life can be pretty boring."
Is it the adrenalin that makes you go that little bit faster?
Button: "Push that little bit more if you want a little bit more – yeah definitely. You know, in an F1 car it's quite different because you can't just push to the limit all the time, because it can actually be slower, but sometimes you do and you just want to give it everything. And it's a great feeling, feeling the car on the edge – 'on the edge of out of control' as they say in 'Days of Thunder'…"
I can't believe you just quoted that movie!
Button (doing his best Tom Cruise impersonation): "'Loose is fast – fast is on the edge of out of control!' Why? It's a fantastic film! That's the best car film ever! Apart from the Italian Job. No, it's great – it's better than anything. The new films – they're crap! But that's a fantastic film."
Do you think anyone could ever make a good car film now?
Button: "No, not really. Especially not Hollywood – they definitely couldn't. An actually racing car movie, it can't be done by Hollywood, because Hollywood's full of cheese, so it couldn't be done."
But so is Formula One...
Button: "Yeah, but it's not the same; it's a different brand of cheese."
Jacques Villeneuve is surprised to hear he is the longest running Honda driver after Ayrton Senna. "Really?" the 1997 World Champion says. "I didn't know that. What – Prost didn't stay that long?" The statistics show that Ayrton Senna leads the Honda drivers' table with 93 Grand Prix starts, followed by Villeneuve with 63 starts and Gerhard Berger with 48. Four times World Champion Alain Prost is ninth, with only 32 starts for Honda.
Yet Villeneuve has a point: most people would associate Prost with Honda before they would associate the Canadian with the Japanese carmaker. Perhaps because Prost won 11 of those 32 races for Honda, while Villeneuve – driving with Honda since they re-entered Formula One in 2000 – has merely two podiums to show for in double the race starts.
"Well," Villeneuve says, reflecting on the notion of being second only to Senna, "that's something at least."
There doesn't seem like Villeneuve has much to celebrate these days. He remains one of the greatest star attractions in a sport that seems to fill up with cloned drivers; but Villeneuve is having a season to forget, full of frustration and regret - perhaps his worst since he made his debut in Formula One by placing his 1996 Williams on pole position in Melbourne.
The reasons for Villeneuve's lackluster season are varied; mainly, he has suffered reliability problems in too many races, and this has been compounded by his own performances on and off the track. There were too many public feuds between himself and team boss David Richards, as well as a lengthy exchange of insults with new teammate Jenson Button. Coupled with the second highest salary on the grid – a topic for much criticism even within his team - Villeneuve now finds himself in the unenviable position of having no contract for 2004 and with no options left to pursue.
So when you finally get a chance to sit down with Villeneuve for a private interview, the inevitable question is: what is he going to do next year?
"No idea," he says, shrugging. "No idea at all."
Q: The notion in the media is that you are resigned to leave Formula One…
Villeneuve: "Oh, no, that's not my plan. Right now there's no contract, there's nothing, that's all – but my plan is not to leave."
Q: But what happens if you don't sign a contract? What is your Plan B, so to speak?
Villeneuve: "Well, I want to continue racing, but I don't want to go through another year like this year. If we work something out with BAR then it would only be because everybody has decided to work closely together, so all that happened last winter and at the beginning of the season - which felt like two separate camps fighting - that wouldn't happen anymore. It would make life a lot easier, and I would be happy with that. Unless that happens, then there won't be any contract. But right now everybody seems to be positive and we all seem to want to work together, so there shouldn't be any problems."
Q: There doesn't seem to be a lot of other options outside of BAR – most of the other teams have firmed up their driver line up. Are you still looking at other teams?
Villeneuve: "No, there's no other option for the 2004 season - every team I think is blocked for next year - it's the year after that when everything opens up."
Inevitably, then, Villeneuve just needs to make it through the next season, and it won't be before next weekend at the earliest that he will find out if BAR want to retain his services for 2004 or not. If he leaves, it would be a bitter ending to what initially promised to be Villeneuve's Dream Team – with his manager Craig Pollock and his loyal race engineer Jock Clear working with him, for him.
And, it would be sad if Villeneuve's last season in Formula One was to be the season he's enduring in 2003.
"No," he says, smiling wryly, "it hasn't been a great season at all. There's been a lot of frustration this year."
Q: You've had a lot of mechanical problems, but how do you actually rate your own driving this year? Is it hard to know?
Villeneuve: "Well I'm happy with my driving; it's just I didn't have enough laps to really show it – too many times the car broke down on lap seven or whatever of a race, and I think the perception is a lot more negative than the reality. The perception is that I've been slower than Jenson in qualifying, when out of all the races it's seven to five in my favour in qualifying.
"So the perception is totally wrong, and I've always been running with the same or more fuel load, but that's also something that cannot be seen because people look at a piece of paper and that's it, and the reality doesn't matter. So the perception is not helping, and I'm at a point where the good things won't be perceived, only if something bad happens that's what people will notice, so that makes it a little bit difficult."
Q: I must say I'm surprised; I never thought you'd be the type of person who would care about perceptions
Villeneuve smiles again; this interview will have a lot of wry smiles, it seems. "Well," he responds, "when it means you're getting a contract or you're out - then yes, you start caring."
But 2003 isn't the first frustrating season Villeneuve has had to endure in Formula One, and in BAR in particular. When he left Williams at the end of 1998 to join the newly formed BAR – built on the ashes of Tyrrell by his manager Pollock, with the financial backing of British American Tobacco – there were many promises of podiums and even a daring suggestion of a win on the debut race of the team. The reality was a year so terrible, so marred with mechanical breakdowns, that the team ended eleventh and last in the Constructors' Championship. Yes, even behind Minardi.
Yet 2003, Villeneuve says, is harder to endure than the 1999 season.
"1999 was a frustration," he explains, "but at the same time there was a contract for the year after, and there were no problems with the team from the beginning. Now with the team everything seems to be right, but there have been moments in the winter and all that and last year where it didn't seem that a faction - a part of the team - was behind me, and that made it worse. Also, in 1999, when things went bad - it was bad for all of us together. So it was frustrating, but we could all take it together. So that was okay. But this year it felt like things have gone wrong and you know I've been carrying most of it, so that makes it more difficult."
Q: Did it also help knowing that 1999 was a learning year for pretty much everyone in the team?
Villeneuve: "1999 was a slap in the face – but that's fine, you know, it's like cold water in the morning, that fine."
Q: Was it really worse than you expected?
Villeneuve: "Oh, yes. You know, everyone thought that we'd be fighting for podiums… so yeah, that was just a slap in the face. But okay, fine, we've just got to get back in the room and work it out then that's fine. This year, though, has been more like a survival battle, which is never nice."
Q: It sounds like it's a personal survival battle, rather than for the whole team – you separate yourself …
Villeneuve: "Well that's how it felt this year, and that's why it was more difficult, and it's a shame because it's not with the engineers or the mechanics I work with – we've always been a really tight group and there's no problem there. But whatever happens with me, the team will go on, so it has separated somehow and that has made it more difficult."
Q: There's something I can't figure out. If 99 was a slap in the face, then why did you stay in BAR after that?
Villeneuve: "Well I had a contract for the following year, but more importantly – Honda joined and they asked me to stay. They told me to stay at the end of 2000."
Q: So what about now? Do Honda want you to stay?
Villeneuve smirks. "Well they've been a lot less vocal this time than they were at the end of 2000!"
Villeneuve's relationship with Honda may not be as close-knit as the one Ayrton Senna formed with the engine manufacturer – the Brazilian World Champion was treated like a son by the Honda executives of the day – but there is no other current driver Honda trust as much as Villeneuve's. The engineers say his technical input is superb, and he seems to have gelled in well with the Japanese staff that settled in England.
"Well, here at the track with the engineers it works really well," Villeneuve explains. "It takes a while to build relationships, and the first couple of years there was a tendency to change engineers every six months so it was impossible to build a relationship, but in the last year it's calmed down a little bit so it made everything easier – the relationship is good now."
Q: But how do you build a relationship with a major motor manufacturer such as Honda?
Villeneuve: "You just work – it's nothing that is forced. Unless you have to work with someone then no you're not inviting them to sit down and have coffee, you're working with them and that's when it builds, when the trust starts building up, and without it you can't work.
Q: I guess most of that would be in the testing periods, away from the races?
Villeneuve: "Testing, but racing is where there's more tension, so that's where anything you build will be stronger; the pressure just brings everybody together."
Q: Well I know for a fact that Honda rate you very highly as far as technical input goes…
Villeneuve: "Oh, really?"
Q: Or so they say… But I am curious what makes a driver good at technical input. What would make you good at it?
Villeneuve: "Talking about a car, setting up a car - what direction should be taken for development - and the same thing for the engine. It's never something that is clear cut – it's always a little bit of a feel, and sometimes you're not even sure if you felt it, or you kind of think you did and then you have to evolve on that, and then you have to start thinking on it, and to make it real.
"And so you have to trust your judgment, and it's very easy… you always know what they want you to say, you can see it in their face, and it's very difficult after half an hour of discussions for you to understand if you're saying what they want you to say or if you really believe what should be good for the car and engine and so on. And then you have to prove it's right as well, and that's why it takes time, and the respect seems to be there now."
Q: When you say you feel it, how does that manifest itself? You're going down a straight and maybe the engine's lagging a little bit, or…
Villeneuve: "Engine is more than power - it's weight, it's how the car reacts with the engine, it's how you can drive it, where the power comes; when it comes; the drivability, and all that. And - mostly now with traction control and all the driver aids - it's become much more difficult to understand what the engine is doing. So the feel work you do has become more important. And often the new development direction you will take is just an idea - it's not something that's been tested, it's more a matter of instinct.
"Going quicker around the lap is not just having more horsepower; sometimes it can be an engine that has a little bit less horsepower but is lighter, or is easier to drive, and so on. And that's what is difficult for an engine manufacturer to understand, because all they understand is the engine. And it takes a while, but right now the relationship has been going on long enough that we can actually kind of involve every aspect of the race car together.
"But, it doesn't happen in five laps, because you always try to work around problems by changing set ups on the car, by changing anything you can actually change, because once you have an engine you can't change it - you can't just take the hood off and do a few tweaks and now suddenly it's lighter or the characteristics are different.
"So it takes a while, and once you've been on the limit and doing laps - thousands of laps! - and changing set ups and all that, you just wrack your brain to find out how you could gain one tenth of a second, and that's when you start working on that side a lot more."
Q: Do you feel you have an impact on the engine that they'll manufacture later?
Villeneuve: "Yeah – the engine we have now has already been influenced by what we've done since the beginning of the season, by what I thought was needed - not enough to my taste of course, but everybody's like that!
"But yes, it has been influenced, and it's been going in what I think is the right direction, so I'm very happy."
Looking at Villeneuve, a flair of mischief lighting up in his eyes as he talks about engines and cars and going faster and faster, it's hard not to recall the famous picture of a toddler Jacques in a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt, sitting in dad's car. The eyes are Gilles; so are the stubbornness and the individualism.
But Jacques, more the Gilles, has made a name for himself as an eccentric, anti PR driver who says what he wants when he wants it. He is a character, alright, which perhaps suggests that Villeneuve junior is simply in Formula One at the wrong time, that he'd have been more suitable for the Formula One of the late seventies – alongside characters like James Hunt Niki Lauda?
"No, because everybody was like that!" he laughs aloud.
"Oh, I don't know," he adds later. "I don't think I would have survived the seventies because I like taking risks, and back then you paid a much higher price for the risks you took, so I'm not sure actually I would have lived through them."
Q: But do you like Formula One now?
"I like driving," he says, without giving it a thought. "But that's all."
Sixty year old Shoichi Tanaka has been with Honda for his entire adult life. After 37 years with the company, the affable Japanese is a perfect ambassador for the car maker in a sport that requires a passion for racing and technology, and an understanding of business and media. With experience as Honda's commercial director in Brazil, sales manager in Europe, president of Honda France, head of Products division for the Japanese market, and vice president of Honda North America, Tanaka-San took his appointment as president of Honda Racing - and head of their third generation in Formula One - with the required grain of salt and feet firmly on the ground. Two hundred and fifty Grands Prix for any motor company is a lot. Fact is, Honda is now fourth with the number of Grand Prix starts - behind Ferrari, Ford and Renault. Not a bad company to keep. Yet Honda is probably the most low-keyed manufacturer in Formula One today.
With auto makers like Renault, BMW and Mercedes advancing themselves to the centre-stage of the sport's arena, Honda remains quietly on the edge, concentrating on what they call the Third Generation Project - first there was generation one, their entry to the sport in the late 1960s as a constructor. Then there was the second generation - their return to the sport in the 1980s to become one of the most successful engine suppliers of the era. And now there's the third generation - best described as a hybrid of both previous ones. Honda is back as an engine supplier, but the company is also involved in chassis development through its relationship with BAR.
Tanaka-San fits perfectly as the project's leader, because he knows every aspect of Honda so well. More importantly, he knows why they're in Formula One - and he knows what they need to do to achieve their goal (and why it eludes them): to become, once again, Grand Prix winners.
Q: Congratulations on your 250th Grand Prix, it's quite a milestone for you
Tanaka: "Well, I don't know how many races we have that we didn't win among those 250 Grands Prix! But when did we win last? 1992? We can only be proud of how many wins, not how many races we've participated in. Nonetheless, this is a demonstration that Honda is committed to motorsport. I think there are only a few manufacturers who have participated in 250 races, so we are proud of that."
Q: It's interesting that you mention your commitment. It's now fashionable to talk about the involvement of auto makers in the sport - and one of the point that the FIA brings up is the fact that the manufacturers are fickle - they come and go. So how do we know that you're here to stay?
Tanaka: "Sometimes I feel uncomfortable to hear (FIA president) Max Mosley say - or even give the impression - that car manufacturers are not too reliable in motorsport because they come and go. Well, without the car manufacturers - without the engine manufacturers - how can Formula One be exciting? Yes, of course the car makers - who are run by public companies - can come and go; F1 activity is not the whole operation. But when one goes another comes in. The car manufacturers came and went but they were always there. The members changed, but there were always manufacturers.
"We are one of the few car manufacturers that were present most of the time, in the 1980s. Which car manufacturer was devoted like Honda in the 1980s? There are many now, but back then we were one of the few. So it's correct that some will go and some will stay, but in general the car manufacturers will always be here."
Q: Why is Honda not a shareholder in the GPWC? They did invite you to join
Tanaka: "Well, the original initiative for a breakaway series was taken by ACEA (The Association of European Car makers), and we are not a member of ACEA. So originally we weren't a part of it. It's true that once the GPWC was formed they invited us to join as shareholders, but we have not made our decision on this yet. The intention of ACEA/GPWC is to have a fair distribution of the income from the sport - and at the same time improve the transparency of the operation. The accountability and transparency of this sport is important to the auto makers' shareholders. We support those intentions.
"However, my understanding of the situation is that both parties - the car makers and the Formula One Management - are coming very closer to achieve these objectives. I think Bernie Ecclestone realises that the distribution can be modified and the transparency could improved. So whether these objectives are achieved by Ecclestone's company or by the GPWC - we don't care."
Q: So you support the objectives, you just don't care how they are obtained?
Tanaka: "That's correct, yes."
Q: So are you part of the negotiations with Ecclestone? Are you involved in it?
Tanaka: "No. We are constantly kept informed of the situation but we are not part of the negotiations."
Q: You said you haven't made a decision about the GPWC. What happens if they do not reach an agreement with Ecclestone and there is a new series, will you join it?
Tanaka: "I do not believe there will be a new series. I believe there will be a compromised agreement. (Mercedes-Benz chairman) Jurgen Hubbert is saying it will be done by October this year, but I cannot judge how close they are to signing it. The schedule continues to be extended - but I believe it will be signed by the end of this year."
Q: Why is it, then, that you're not actively involved in the negotiations?
Tanaka: "It may sound egoistic, but we're in Formula One for the technical challenge only. In fact, the reason why we dropped the idea of forming our own team four years ago is because we are not interested at all in the political aspect of Formula One. That has always been our stance. We have a partner, BAR, and David Richards presents our ideas in such political scenes, so I always communicate our ideas to him and he represents us in the public. It's enough for us at the moment. We want to concentrate as much as possible on the technical challenge."
Q: It's interesting, considering nowadays there is a shift towards having a team as one unit - like Ferrari, Toyota, Renault, Jaguar. Yet you made a decision to go against this trend and not form your own team. Was it only because of politics?
Tanaka: "The main reason was that we wanted to concentrate on technical matters. We wanted to be involved in chassis technology - which we didn't do in the past - so in order to be involved in chassis development we thought that we need to own the team. So we went ahead with that kind of plan to begin with. But, finally we had a compromising scenario of BAR coming and offering us a joint chassis development.
"So we thought, OK, without owning the team and having to go to the meetings and signing the Concorde Agreement and having to go to all those social activities of black tie parties - which are not among our objectives - we can get involved in what we wanted on the technological side, but not be involved in the aspects that don't interest us. We thought that would be a good framework."
Q: The downside to that is that BAR will take the credit for any success that will come your way. If Ferrari or Toyota have a good result, the credit goes directly to their name. With you, BAR gets the credit - not the Honda name
Tanaka: "We don't see this as a very big downside, really. We don't very much care if image-wise BAR or Honda get the credit. Many people know that Honda is deeply involved in the performance of BAR. But I think the actual downside that I can point at, after more than three years' experience, is that, after all, it's not one team. Decisions on personnel, management, what technology to apply in the next race and so on - is not coming out of one team.
"We spend sometimes a lot of effort and energy to communicate and to come to agreement... it is, frankly speaking, the downside compared to one manufacturer's team."
Q: Since you mention management, BAR in particular - since you joined them in 2000 - have had many management and technical staff changes. Craig Pollock was replaced, Adrian Reynard...
Tanaka, laughing: "Yes, yes... you don't have to remind me, I have been witness to all that! But that is the risk and the price we have to pay in working with the (then) youngest team on the grid. That is the price we have to pay."
Q: Do you feel that the team is heading towards stability, though? Do you see a better harmony in how you two work together?
Tanaka: "Well, our chassis technology was of course premature. We did not have many Honda engineers who were experts in making a Formula One chassis. And with over three years' experience, I think we have come very well of being able to contribute and understand each other on how to make an F1 chassis, and so on. So this time has helped us to produce the results of making a better car together. So, yes, I think this technology integration is going to bear fruit in the near future."
Q: How much involvement do you have in the running of BAR, though? Do you, for example, have a say in the team as far as which drivers they hire?
Tanaka: "We are constantly talking together; our contractual relationship stipulates that they consult with us over the drivers' issue. So it's not a one-sided decision. But the final decision is with the team, even if we are well consulted."
Q: Jacques Villeneuve mentioned that in 2000 Honda asked him to stay. He then said that right now Honda are not very vocal... The impression is that you perhaps don't want him to stay?
Tanaka: "Jacques was negotiating whether to renew the contract with BAR in 2000, and I remember that we were consulted, and we wanted Jacques to stay. It is true. Although, again, the decision was with the team. Craig Pollock concluded with him for three years and for such and such money - in that were not involved."
Q: Are you now consulted with regards to Jacques?
Tanaka: "Yes, we are."
Q: And? Do you want him to stay?
Tanaka: "Well, this is a very delicate situation, because we understand the team is negotiating with other drivers as well as with Jacques. And so it would be wrong for the drivers and the team to hear our opinion on the matter in an interview like this."
Q: OK, separately from the current situation, can you tell me how important is it for Honda to have a Japanese driver?
Tanaka: "It is important. To have a Japanese driver, it will be very good. I don't know how much you know about American baseball, but we have major league Japanese baseball players now, and so major league baseball is becoming very popular in Japan. Likewise in soccer: we have guys who are going out of Japan and into first class teams in Europe, and the level of enthusiasm for soccer in Japan is going up.
"In motorsport, we had some Japanese drivers in the past and at that time they were pretty popular but performance wise these drivers weren't so great. So what we really need is a first class Formula One driver to animate the interest for F1 in Japan. So it is important.
"But, we always take the stance of performance first. If a Japanese driver makes his way by himself to be a top F1 driver, we will be extremely happy. But we do not recommend to BAR to select a driver only by nationality."
Q: You are also partners to Bridgestone, another Japanese company. How much is that a factor in your selection of tyre manufacturers? Would that stop you from switching to Michelin?
Tanaka: "Actually, we do not regard Michelin as a French tyre and Bridgestone as a Japanese tyre. We never think of the nationality of the tyre companies. For example, we work very closely on the road cars with both Bridgestone and Michelin, very evenly. I cannot say now off hand what percentage of our road cars application is Michelin and what is Bridgestone, but I think we are a big customer for Michelin as well. So there is no nationality issue."
Q: The reason I ask is because BAR are rumoured to be looking at switching to Michelin next year...
Tanaka: "Again, the tyre choice is up to the team. Although with the joint chassis development contract we are involved in the discussions, the final decision is up to the team."
Q: You mentioned that Honda is in Formula One only for the technical challenge. Some of the other car makes are here also - or even more so - for marketing purposes. Being in F1 sells cars. For example Toyota, their decision to come into the sport was primarily for marketing reasons. Is it not the case for Honda?
Tanaka: "Unfortunately, we are considered very weak in that kind of activities - linking the motorsports activities to the marketing, effectively. We are sometimes criticised for the poor performance in that respect. When our engines were dominant in the 1980s in F1, I don't remember how much we advertised that!"
Q: So you concentrate on the technical challenge, and yet you are unable to repeat the success you had in the 1980s. What has changed between these two periods to explain your lack of success now compared to then?
Tanaka: "The competitors are different. Competitors now are mostly the car manufacturers - the '100,000 employees' league. In the 1980s, we were one of the very few companies in that scale. Back then it was maybe us against Renault. Now it's Mercedes, BMW, Ford..."
Q: So Formula One is tougher today?
Tanaka: "yes, and we recognise that. In fact, it is more challenging than we thought when we entered in year 2000. Things have turned out more difficult than we thought, so our schedule to reach our target is changing."
Q: So what do you think Honda and BAR have to do to step up to the level of race winners?
Tanaka: "More integration - more understanding in the level of technology and more integration of management. The best engine cannot make the best team and the best chassis cannot make the best team. So more integration of race management, tyres, chassis, engines, drivers. The integration is the key factor, and we are working hard on that now; we have not changed our target of threatening the top teams next year."
Q: Is there more pressure on you to succeed, now that Toyota is in F1?
Tanaka: "Frankly speaking, the Japanese fans and the Japanese dealers are the only ones who talk about the competition between Toyota and Honda - it's a very closed automobile market there. But in Europe and other countries no, not in particular. For us, as a team, all the teams ahead of us are competitors and we will never be satisfied to only be faster than Toyota."
Q: I am thinking about the Honda headquarters, actually. What happens if by the end of the year Toyota passes you in the Constructors' Championship? What will the reaction be in Japan, in the headquarters?
Tanaka bursts out laughing. "Oh, headquarters are already very much pissed off about our position!"
Sidebar: Takeo Kiuchi - Drivers Then and Now
Honda's F1 Project Leader Takeo Kiuchi is another long term Honda employee - but he also stands out as one of the few Honda engineers to have been involved in the second generation project as well as the current one. More so, he is best known in the paddock as Alain Prost's race engineer in 1988, and Ayrton Senna's engineer from 1989 to 1992. He is best positioned to compare between the drivers of then, and the drivers of now.
"The drivers back then were famous - not only Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna - but also Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell, for example. But more to the point, these drivers could make a difference to the car; they could make a major set-up, they could comment, for example, on first corner understeer, second corner oversteer, and they could make an entire setup. Now that is the job of the engineer.
"Ayrton, for example, would come back from driving a few laps and say 'change the left side rubber 2 millimetre and change the suspension', or 'the tyre pressure by 5 kilo or something' – he, and others back then, knew what to do and how every change affects the car. Essentially today, just Michael Schumacher can do this; the other drivers are there just to drive quickly.
"Compared to ten years ago, Formula One is very systematic – the driver is just here for driving – making the setup of the car is the engineer's job. That is the primary reason for the difference between then and now. The second reason is that everything is now controlled by computers, with traction control and everything – the driver is just sitting there! The driver's jobs now are very few."