Behind the wheel, Takuma Sato slides the car through the famous Esses. The run highlights the importance of motorsport to Honda’s culture, something that’s as true today as it was half a century ago.
Moments later, the technically complex 2017 F1 cars take to the track for qualifying. Formula 1 is the most popular racing series on the planet and Honda’s fortunes in F1 have generated considerable column inches in recent years. But it can also eclipse their successes elsewhere in motorsport.
“Yes, it can overshadow what we’re doing in other categories,” says Masashi Yamamoto, General Manager of Honda Motorsport. “But people still see us in Formula 1 and they start talking about Honda there. That gives us the exposure. We try to make improvements to communicate better with all of our customers. But we can always do more.”
Of the other categories outside Formula 1 that Yamamoto references, Honda enjoys plenty of hard-earned results on both two- and four-wheels.
“We are the biggest manufacturer of motorcycles in the world, so MotoGP - where we have been winning titles with Marc Marquez - World Superbikes and Supercross are really important for us. We also have a rider called Toni Bou in trials who has been successful for 11 consecutive seasons! So plenty of two-wheel action.”
“It is important to show Honda as an attractive brand, so we have to appeal to all of our motorcycle customers across all of the different categories. We even supply engines to the whole of Moto2.”
“When it comes to cars we are in SuperGT, Super Formula, IndyCar, the World Touring Car Championship (WTCC). Obviously we are based in Japan, so it is crucial to have a presence in these domestic categories, to communicate the Honda message to all the fans.”
“SuperGT and WTCC - where we’re fighting for the title - use cars based on production models, so customers can see an actual Honda vehicle racing. It’s slightly different with the formula series. Honda has a long history in formula-based racing and it is important for our culture to be in those series. It also provides a proving ground for our engineers and drivers to develop their abilities.”
Super Formula is a major deal nationally but has also become a further stepping stone for young F1 hopefuls, with Stoffel Vandoorne winning races last season and Pierre Gasly just missing out on the 2017 title by a point after the championship decider was cancelled due to a typhoon in Japan.
“Super Formula is a big fight between Honda and Toyota,” Gasly says. “Honda is such a big company and they have huge facilities. What makes it really exciting to work for them is you can feel they’re really passionate about what they do.
They have huge motivation and they really want to become the best, so it’s always nice to work with people who have big ambitions.”
Racing across Japan, Gasly describes Super Formula as “the closest car to F1 in terms of downforce”, and points to the ability to work with a manufacturer as a vital step forward in his career. And then there’s the fans…
“It’s crazy!” Gasly laughs. “Japanese fans in general are really passionate and they really show it but with Honda when I came here I didn’t know it was that big. People really support them. Weekend after weekend I discovered the passion of the people.
“The more I come back to Japan the more I like it. I was really happy to be back at Suzuka for F1. Seeing the people, they are so nice and polite, it’s just cool. You are happy to see them.”
Another driver who has become used to large Japanese crowds outside of F1 is Jenson Button. This year he made his SuperGT debut, tackling the Suzuka 1000km. The race was tough for the 2009 F1 World Champion but now he has a taste for the series and wants more.
“This category for me has always been very special,” Button admits. “The last few years I’ve been watching and loving that there’s three manufacturers racing. You forget that all the tubs are the same and a lot of the suspension parts are the same because the cars look so different."
“The Honda is the only one with a rear engine. If you look at Mercedes, BMW and Audi in DTM, they are all front engined. Here the Nissan and Toyota has a front engine and then Honda has an engine in the rear. So they’ve had to do a lot of work to adapt it and get it to work correctly - and they’re slapped with a weight penalty - but it's a quick beast."
“It’s nice working with all the Honda teams. There are five cars and we all meet together to discuss everything. It’s great to see so much involvement from all three manufacturers. It’s so big here, it’s like DTM in Germany. It’s almost as important as Formula 1, so it’s been really great to be a part of that.”
Having driven for the McLaren-Honda team over the past three seasons, Button insists the F1 programme and the SuperGT team - both based out of Sakura - share many characteristics.
“There aren’t many categories outside of Formula 1 that I’d be interested to race in, but SuperGT is one of them. Not only because of the cars but also because of the manufacturers involved. I think probably also because of the fan base here for it. It’s such a good atmosphere.”
“There are lots of aspects that are a strength of having two factories. Logistically it is certainly an advantage for us to be in Milton Keynes because there are lots of races happening in Europe and North and South America as well. Being able to work 24 hours between Sakura and Milton Keynes is something we use to our advantage.”
“Obviously the big races like Fuji and Suzuka are where you have 100,000 fans. The smaller ones not so much but people will travel. You've got the Shinkansen which is great, so you still get a lot of fans at races.”
While Honda power just missed out on the 2017 Super Formula title and has already won races in SuperGT this season, one international achievement stands out as perhaps its greatest success this season: the 2017 Indy 500 title with Takuma Sato.
“It’s an incredible achievement,” says Sato, who drove for the same Honda-powered Andretti Autosport team that ran Fernando Alonso this year. “The Indy 500 is possibly the most difficult race to win for many reasons. Everything has to be perfect.
“It’s a long race but I think it was definitely the most significant moment in my life. Winning the 500 is a dream come true. Whoever races in the Indy 500, their dream is to win.”
Sato’s racing career was kickstarted by the Honda-funded Suzuka Circuit Racing School Formula, while various other Japanese drivers - including F2’s Nobuharu Matsushita and GP3’s Nirei Fukuzumi - also benefit from the current Honda Young Driver programme. The desire to succeed in racing extends far beyond F1, but the headlines are made by motorsport’s leading category where the top results are yet to follow.
“Takuma’s case is a good example. He struggled for a long time but then once he won his whole situation changed,” Yamamoto says. “We want to do that in Formula 1 as well. We will continue to make technical developments in the series with Toro Rosso throughout 2018. Ultimately, we want to have success like MotoGP and Indy here in F1.”