How Honda Had Its Best Racing Season Ever Across the Board in 2021

The F1 Championship was just the tip of the iceberg—Honda’s big wins in IndyCar, IMSA, Baja and more showed it’s doing something right. But what exactly?

byMar 3, 2022 2:57 PM
How Honda Had Its Best Racing Season Ever Across the Board in 2021
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The way the 2021 Formula 1 season ended—you know, that—was unfortunate for a lot of reasons, but high among them was how it smothered a lot of the other narratives that were building up to the finale. One of them, of course, was that 2021 was Honda’s final season as an official engine supplier for F1, Abu Dhabi its last chance to beat Mercedes with full factory involvement. Honda brought every resource to bear to put together and sustain one last brilliant power unit. And controversy or not, it walked away with its first F1 championship since Ayrton Senna in 1991. 

That’s a pretty brilliant capstone, but in the chaos you may not have realized just how good a year Honda had in racing in 2021. To wit: Outside F1, Honda won IndyCar’s Manufacturers’ Cup and powered Driver Champion Álex Palou, plus Hélio Castroneves’ historic fourth Indy 500 win. It won the 24 Hours of Daytona (and again this year) and the Michelin Endurance Cup in IMSA. It even went down to Mexico and scored a Baja 1000 Class 7 win with a “Honda Ridgeline” trophy truck.

Acura won the 24 Hours of Daytona for the second year in a row in January, Honda

To excel like this across multiple disciplines is no accident, especially not today when costs are so high across the board. It takes resources, commitment, and a true belief in the value of motorsport. Given what’s next for the company—even as Honda withdraws from F1, Acura’s planning a 2023 entry in the new global LMDh prototype category that could open the door to a Le Mans run—I wanted to find out how Honda pulled it off, and more importantly, why it’s so committed to the cause. 

At the heart of Honda’s success in North America is Honda Performance Development (HPD) which heads all of Honda and Acura racing programs. The man in charge of the 200 men and women who work at HPD is Dave Salters, who joined the company in 2015 and was named its President and Technical Director in 2020. Salters walked me through how it all works.

Indy and IMSA and Baja, Oh My

HPD is split into two groups. There’s the Commercial Group, which handles Honda’s customer racing programs such as Touring Car (TCA and TC programs in the SRO series) and the ladder open wheel series F3 and F4. Meanwhile, the Pinnacle Group runs all of Honda and Acura’s elite professional racing programs such IMSA and Baja. However the crown jewel in HPD’s Pinnacle program right now is clearly IndyCar.

I’m not sure how you have a more dominant season than Honda did in the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series. Now the argument can be made that Honda only has to compete against one other manufacturer in the series (Chevrolet), but you can hardly blame Honda for the lack of automaker involvement. I asked Salters if Honda was for having more OEMs in the series. “Would we like a third manufacturer? Absolutely! The more competition we can have, the better it is for us to develop our people , develop our technology and challenge ourselves,” he replied.

Honda

Over on the IMSA side of things, the season started well for Honda with an epic battle to win the 24 Hours of Daytona. It was the first overall win for Acura and third win in a row for Wayne Taylor Racing (who ran with Cadillac in previous years). To round out the IMSA season Honda also took top honors in the Endurance Cup that consisted of the three endurance events (Daytona, Sebring and Petite Le Mans) during the 2021 season.

HPD designs and develops the hybrid V6 powertrain for Honda’s DPi car as well as doing the aero development and vehicle dynamics, showing how deep the engineering skillset is for the company. Throughout our conversation Salters made numerous mention of the team effort that it takes to achieve on this level. “Our success is a testament to the 200 people who work here at HPD,” he said. “These are all Honda employees that do the work… and it’s nice to be able to see that.”

Honda

After a long season of road racing success, HPD turned its attention off road, specifically the Baja 1000. Competing in Class 7 for unlimited V6-powered race trucks, HPD powered the #709 Honda Ridgeline to victory after 23 hours, four minutes and 59 seconds of racing, taking the class win by just over three hours over their nearest competitor. Honda factory driver Alexander Rossi did triple duty for the manufacturer in IndyCar, IMSA and Baja, pairing with team owner Jeff Proctor, Richard Glaszczak and off road legend Steve Hengeveld along with navigator Evan Weller. Although Rossi was the sixth Indianapolis 500 winner to compete at Baja, he's now the first driver to win the 500, Baja 1000 and Rolex 24 at Daytona.

“It’s quite extraordinary,” Salters enthused. “We won Daytona, the first race of the season, and then we won the Baja 1000, which is the last race of the season [in North America]. Alexander Rossi was in both of those cars and both cars were powered by the same powertrain. The same engine we use in the DPi car we use in the Baja car! We change how the engine behaves a bit, but other than that it’s pretty much the same.”

Honda

It’s a tall order to get the same motor to survive 24 hours on the high banks of Daytona and the insanely harsh off-road conditions of Baja, with all of the dust and pounding the car takes with the deep sand and jumps. Salters said it took “a lot of bloody mindedness,” which is British for being stubborn as hell, but “it seemed a good engine to put in the Baja Truck” and the economy of scale was too tempting to ignore.

Even more incredible is that both engines are based off of Honda’s production 3.5-liter V6 engine. Of course, the 600+ horsepower twin-turbo version in these race cars is a different beast entirely from what’s lurking under the hood of your neighbor’s Pilot.

The Next Challenge: LMDh

I asked the obvious question: if it works so well in DPi and Baja will it be the engine that will be used in the upcoming LMDh cars that will run both IMSA and LeMans? “We are studying that. What we have to figure out is what is the best engine for the LMDh. So we are looking at all of our options and are doing a lot of simulations, and lots of development work and we will choose what is the most competitive package,” he replied.

Getty Images

So how exactly is the LMDh program going? “It’s pretty awesome, to be honest with you. It’s hard work, but opportunities like this don’t come along that often. We’ve got Porsche, Audi, BMW, GM all competing. We like the competition, that’s what we do it for, but it means there is a lot of pressure.”

“It’s going to be a new era of sports car racing with all those manufacturers fighting. To be part of that is very privileged, and [it means] a lot of late nights,” he went on. “These are going to be pretty special racing cars. Hybrid, open software to be developed how you manage your energy, and all of that. The cars are going to be quite sophisticated and the competition is going to be fierce.” 

Why Honda Goes Racing

As for the why, Salters points to both the tangible and intangible benefits that a successful racing program can bring to an automaker. At the end of the day, winning on track is one of the most obvious ways to prove you have a superior product, and that can significantly influence a company’s culture. The trickle-down tech doesn’t hurt either.

“On the motorsports side, we are pretty fearless so you can push the envelope, and we can carry that mentality across to our colleagues who are developing the road cars,” Salters said. “Also, there is a lot of electrification we are privileged to be playing with now… how do you make things lighter? How do you manage energy better? So we have become quite skilled at managing energy, particularly the F1 side are extremely skilled at managing, harvesting and deploying energy. And the control side of that is directly relevant to road cars.” 

The upcoming Honda Civic Type R, Honda

With all the massive success with HPD’s Pinnacle projects, it’s easy to overlook the Commercial side where HPD builds, develops and manages things like the Honda Civic Type R engines that power F3 (now called Formula Regional) and F4. HPD also helped Honda to take the Manufacturers Championship in the SRO TC America series and drivers Eric Powell and Kevin Boehm battled to the last race for Drivers Championship honors in Honda Civic Type R’s with Powell edging Boehm for the title. 

There’s a lot to be said about a manufacturer with such a long history in motorsports having one of its best seasons ever. But more so than the big titles, the thing that stands out to me is that Honda is one of the few manufacturers that support racing from grassroots, to entry level pro all the way to the top rung in motorsports and pretty much whatever type of racing you want to do Touring Cars, GT, Open Wheel, Honda is there.

I’m not sure what Dave Salters and his crew at HPD can do to top the season they had in 2021 but seeing this level of enthusiasm for motorsports from a manufacturer I know it’ll be fun to watch.

Robb Holland is an American race car driver and automotive journalist. He has competed in the British Touring Car Championship, Pikes Peak, the World Touring Car Championships, and more.

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