Naturally, the majority of fan attention remains focused on the skilled drivers in the car. But the very machines piloted by those familiar faces are designed, built and run by normal - albeit extremely talented - men and women.
At Honda, the person we see most is that of Head of Honda Formula 1 Project and Executive Chief Engineer, Yusuke Hasegawa, who is the main spokesman for the engine manufacturer. However, he leads a dedicated team, who remain largely unknown to the majority of fans.
“I’m in charge of not only the circuit operations but also R&D,” explains Hasegawa. “From that point of view, I set the targets from the current situation and define the direction of what is most important to focus on."
“Nakamura-san is one of the members I work closest with. He’s in charge of Milton Keynes, and at the circuit he reports directly to me. As my role is an overall management one, he doesn't have to come to me for every little operational decision, but if something is more organisational or team politics, or he needs to make a big decision - like changing the engine, updating the engine or we have a failure - then he will come to me for advice.”
The man Hasegawa is referring to is Principal Engineer, Satoshi Nakamura. He previously worked for Mugen and then the factory Honda Racing F1 Team until 2008, before switching his focus to the development of the Honda Accord engine. But racing was always his dream.
“I’ve always been a racing fan, and especially Formula 1,” Nakamura says. “I have followed the championship ever since I was in elementary school."
"I loved to watch the passionate and aggressive drivers like Alain Prost and Nigel Mansell. They were my heroes. Around 2013 I returned to the motorsports division and worked on engine development for Formula 1. Then in 2015 I became Head of Trackside Operations.”
The return to F1 saw Nakamura take on a senior role, one that requires him to manage a team in Milton Keynes, as well as make frequent visits to Sakura, Japan and the McLaren Technology Centre in Woking.
“It is my responsibility to be a liaison person between the McLaren engineers and the engineers in Sakura, by feeding back the trackside results to the development side. I’m the link between the two."
“Away from the track I’m based in the UK, where I am in charge of running the Milton Keynes factory, our F1 facility here in Europe. One of the priorities at the moment is to collect information, such as the newest technologies and F1 racing operations in Europe, then discuss with Sakura on whether we will adopt them, and how.
“It’s a dual role, of development away from the track and then testing and learning at the track. I look after a number of people back in Milton Keynes as well as the trackside operations, so it’s a lot of responsibility.”
One of the team members Nakamura oversees is PU engineer Daisuke Kobayashi. Working to optimise the power unit performance in Stoffel Vandoorne’s car, Kobayashi feels the hardest work takes place away from the circuit rather than in the race garage.
"The main role is to gather all of the PU information from my car - I work on Stoffel’s MCL32 - collate it, and then communicate it to Honda in Japan,” Kobayashi explains. “I monitor the performance and how to get the best from it, while working together with the guys on Fernando’s car. "There’s no rivalry between the two sides of the garage. Instead we collaborate and share our knowledge. One of my best friends is part of the team on the other car."
“Back at the factory, I go through the data to find any causes for performance deficits and report them for improvement. I also work on the simulator, which means spending a lot of time at the McLaren Technology Centre, too."
"When we arrive at the circuit we don’t have much time to prepare so we need to do everything before the race. People don’t see the effort that’s put in between races but most of the preparation is done away from the circuit."
Despite the focus on tasks away from a race weekend, Kobayashi is unequivocal when it comes to the highlight of his job, having previously developed hybrid systems for the road car side of Honda. “For me, racing is the best part of the job. You can get a result immediately. When I worked on the passenger cars, I wouldn’t always know the result of that work. I would just do my job and then any feedback might come two or three years later. Here I can get a clear result straight away based on the race order."
“At the same time, the hardest aspect is also at the track, because it’s where I have to get an understanding of what the driver feels as well as seeing things on the data. That’s very challenging. Sometimes it’s easy and the feedback all aligns but sometimes the data is very different to what Stoffel says! If I manage to give the driver what he wants when it is almost invisible in the data, that’s a source of great pleasure.”
Another team member with a very hands-on role at the circuit is chief mechanic Kenji Nakano, who controls the management of the power unit hardware.
“I have a big responsibility here trackside when it comes to hardware, so I can identify the things that need further development,” Nakano explains. “I gather the information and feed back to Sakura, which is a big motivation for me to try and help us improve."
“But that also means the hardest part of the job is exactly the same as the most motivating part! Of course one of the most difficult things is the pressure on us. As you know this season we are in a very difficult situation. When performance is not so good it means we definitely can’t make a mistake trackside. As mechanics we must be perfect every time.”
For the Japanese team members, Honda has been a home for life. Nakamura, Kobayashi and Nakano are just three examples of those who started in F1, before moving over to the road car division. But the passion never faded and they all took the opportunity to return to the sport with Honda as a power unit supplier, even though it required relocating their families from Japan to Milton Keynes.
It’s a very different path to that taken by the non-Japanese members of the team. Cedrik Staudohar works as a System Engineer and joined at the start of this year from Renault, where he also previously worked in the Caterham and Toro Rosso teams.
“Of course there is a difference in terms of culture between Japanese people and European people but also in Europe the French are maybe a bit different to others!” Staudohar laughs. “At first we have to learn how to work together, and I now understand more how they think and their approach to the sport."
“This job in Formula 1 is a mix of cultures and everybody has to adapt to each other. Honda has welcomed me because I bring another culture. Of course knowledge and experience, but also the different culture because I have been involved in Formula 1 for a long time.”
Staudohar is in charge of the software that manages the power unit operation. He also monitors numerous performance and reliability parameters when the car is out on track. When he’s back at the factory he leads the preparations to supply Sauber in 2018. Even with this responsibility on his shoulders, the Frenchman has learned how to stay positive during a challenging year.
“I can feel the pressure. When I started in Renault we had the same pressure from the chassis team. It’s natural. Of course, when you are trackside you have to accept that this pressure is part of the job. When you start, this could affect how you work but now I understand that you have to turn this pressure into good things.
Each team member has their own way of getting away from the stresses of the job. While Nakamura works on the engine in his Honda Monkey during his spare time, Staudohar has a much more fundamental escape.
“It’s a bit difficult for me to have other hobbies because my family is in France. I want to spend time with my daughters and my wife, so I try to go back to France as often as possible. Every weekend when I’m not at a race I go back to France. So basically my hobby is to spend time with my family!”
ERS technician Owen Richards also has family considerations away from his role, but says Honda’s willingness to allow him to satisfy his own racing spirit is a key motivator.
“I’ve got a nine month old daughter - Betty-May - and another little baby on the way, so my family keeps me pretty busy at the moment,” Richards says. “I’m really big into my mountain bike racing, and fortunately Honda allows me to have time off to race. There’s not many other teams would allow that to happen. I think Honda makes it accessible for people to have a semi-normal life while working in Formula 1."
“As a European person I like being part of a Japanese team, it’s good fun. Everyone likes coming into the Honda area because it’s so different to anything else. We’re not a press print of every other team, so I think the differences with Honda are what makes it a very unique place to work. It’s challenging but unique. Having worked at several teams and in several garages, it’s nice to be somewhere different.”
Richards’ experiences saw him working on the first Mercedes KERS project before spells with Cosworth and Lotus. Joining Honda, Richards was one of the first full-time staff members to be recruited at the Milton Keynes factory and has seen the whole project build-up, which helps him face a challenging season with optimism for the future.
“The most difficult part of the job at Honda is justification of what we’re doing. Trying to tell everyone that we’re not sat with our feet up while everyone is looking down. Everyone is still pushing on."
“It’s like bits of a puzzle where you’re building all four corners of the puzzle but backwards. It’s all fitting together in places but it just needs realigning, and once everything fits together it will be very good.”