In 1983 Honda re-entered Formula 1 after an absence of fourteen years. It chose a brand new team to collaborate with and a single entry was prepared for Stefan Johansson to drive at the British Grand Prix (the ninth race of the fifteen race season). Johansson qualified a respectable 14th (thanks largely to the overweight car putting extra load in the tyres while everyone else suffered with low tyre temperatures in the cold British summer). In the race, the car failed after five laps due to a fuel pump failure.
It took until the teams third race (Austria, the 11th of the season) before the car managed to get to the chequered flag. Even then it was five laps down, in 12th place. By the following race,, Johansson had improved and now finished only two laps behind the leader, just out of the points in seventh place. This was the best result of the few races they did that season, with a DNF in Italy after four laps and a 14th place in the European GP at Brands Hatch, the team did not attend the final race of the season in South Africa.
The following year Spirit lost the Honda engine deal, and they were to be found in the back of the Williams cars of Keke Rosberg and Jacques Laffite. The 1984 season started well with a second place for Rosberg in the opening round, even if Laffite retired with electrical problems after fifteen laps. South Africa saw both cars retire, although Rosberg had shown the car’s pace by qualifying in second place. In Belgium Rosberg was in the points again with a fourth place even if Laffite had yet to see the chequered flag. The Finn had started from third place, while the Frenchman was 2.7 seconds slower in qualifying managing only 15th. Interestingly in this era when drivers have to save fuel, Rosberg although classified fourth was listed as out of fuel and failed to finish the final lap. This situation was common throughout the year for many drivers and teams.
At Imola for the San Marino GP qualifying again had Rosberg on the second row, with Laffite in 15th place, but both cars failed to finish. France was similar (second row start for the faster Williams driver, with Laffite able to improve to 12th, although still 2.5 seconds slower than Rosberg). The difference this time was that both cars finished, Rosberg getting a single point for sixth place a lap behind the leader and Laffite two places and thirty seconds behind.
Monaco saw the start of poorer qualifying for Rosberg (perhaps other teams had started to out develop the Williams-Honda) and for the next four races he would start 10th, 15th, 21st and 8th. Laffite was still usually slower, starting 16th, 17th, 19th and 25th. Despite the poorer starting position the wet weather at Monaco allowed Rosberg to finish fourth (once Stefan Bellof’s Tyrrell had been disqualified later in the season), and Laffite was the last classified finisher a lap down in eighth. Neither Williams finished in Canada, and only Laffite saw the chequered flag in Detroit (the last runner and fifth place a lap down, again benefitting from a disqualified Tyrrell this time that of Martin Brundle). Dallas however saw not only both Williams in the points, but Rosberg won with Laffite in fourth place even if he was two laps down.
For the British GP qualifying for Rosberg had improved, and he started fifth with Laffite some 2.9 seconds slower in 16th. Unfortunately neither car completed the race, and the same would be true for the next two races. It would be another three races before the team was classified as a finisher (Rosberg classified as eighth and three laps down in the Dutch Grand Prix, having once again run out of fuel). Then there were no more finishes until the final Portugese race when Laffite was classified in 14th place three laps down.
Overall the team finished the constructors in sixth place with one win, one second and a handful of minor places. However there were many non finishes, and some very variable performances. What does this mean for Honda this time around? Possibly nothing other than to indicate that it always take time to develop a new engine. While for their first turbo entry into F1 Honda did eventually become the dominant force, it took until their third year before they were winning regularly and five years before they became utterly dominant. Perhaps we should give McLaren Honda some slack (for a few races anyway).