Honda Insights - Sakura and Milton Keynes

For a sport covered so closely, there is one aspect of a Formula 1 team that remains a largely secretive place. A location that is rarely seen by television cameras or visited by anyone but team members: the factory.

At Honda, the term ‘factories’ is more appropriate. With a racing calendar bookended by races around the world and a “European season” sandwiched in the middle, the decision was taken to have two dedicated facilities – one in Honda’s spiritual home of Japan and the other in the centre of Formula 1’s English heartland.

Eight of the teams on this year’s grid have a factory within 70 miles of Honda’s European F1 base at Milton Keynes, and it’s an approach that brings the company closer to the sport. On the other side of the planet, some 9,500 miles away – and in a time zone 9 hours ahead - is the Honda Racing Developments factory in Sakura.

It’s an uncommon set-up. Race teams and their engine facilities often have separate bases, but multiple factories for either a power unit supplier or team in isolation are rare. One of the few exceptions is Honda’s partner from 2018 - Toro Rosso - that has facilities in Faenza, Italy and Bicester, UK.

But what exactly does each Honda factory do? And what are the advantages of such an approach? The man officially in charge of the Sakura operation is a familiar name to F1 fans, because he spends the majority of his time at each race venue.

“At Sakura, the development of the power unit is the main responsibility,” Honda’s Head of F1 Project Yusuke Hasegawa says. “If we divide the roles then the research projects for the future - Formula 1 and racing engine research projects - are done in Sakura."

“But it is not only the development that happens at Sakura. They also have responsibility to prepare things, which means purchasing, cost control, parts control, quality control and so on. All of that is done there.”

An undertaking as big as developing and manufacturing a Formula 1 power unit is a major one, and so the decision was taken to build a specialist facility. The factory at Sakura - located 90 miles north of Tokyo - houses only Honda Racing programs.

“Previously we had the racing department inside of our mass production facility, based in Utsunomiya,” Hasegawa explains. “But because we made the decision to return to Formula 1 we needed to expand our organisation. So we opted to relocate the racing department to a new building in Sakura.”

About 80% of the people in Sakura work on Formula 1, while the others are engaged in projects such as SuperGT, WTCC and Super Formula. But even before the official Sakura opening ceremony had been held in 2014, work was already going on at a second facility in the UK.

“Milton Keynes originally started as a racing department engineer’s base,” Hasegawa continues. “For people like myself or Nakamura-san, living in the UK, it is more convenient to have a base in Europe. It is also a good place to be to attract European engineers to our project.

“So it started as a racing operation base but now Milton Keynes has grown to take on the responsibility of the development and parts control of the battery pack. The current lithium ion battery has very strict regulations - United Nations regulations - meaning the prototype lithium ion batteries are very difficult to ship by air freight, so we have the parts control area inside Europe. That makes things easier.”

Hasegawa references Satoshi Nakamura, the Principal Engineer who runs the Milton Keynes factory. It’s smaller than Sakura but retains the same Honda design philosophy of open space and clean white working areas.

“In Milton Keynes we have the power unit performance team, the dyno team, the ESS pack team, human resource and business administration, as well as PR,” Nakamura explains.

“There are lots of departments but the main role is the maintenance of the power unit. We have a lot of power unit components which we have to bring back to the factory for maintenance after each race. We also have a powertrain dyno in Milton Keynes, so we can test plenty of items there too. That’s usually more focused on a component’s reliability than its development, which happens at Sakura.”

Modern communication methods keep the two factories well-connected, but their respective locations also enable near round-the-clock work to take place. On top of that it adds the flexibility to choose which facility is more convenient to undertake specific work in a sport where every second counts.

“The information comes into Milton Keynes from Sakura, after a day of tests in Japan,” Nakamura says. “So in the morning for the UK side the dyno results from Japan are received. The engineers can then start to analyze it immediately. It’s very convenient.

"But from a management side there are always phone calls and emails coming, the laptop never sleeps! There’s a lot to do in the morning when you wake up."

“Then when the engineers finish work in the evening in Milton Keynes, it will be the morning again in Sakura. So it is close to being non-stop.”

One of the engineers working under Nakamura is Hideomi Mori, a Performance Engineer based at the Milton Keynes factory.

“It’s an important facility,” Mori says of Milton Keynes, having moved there from Sakura in 2015. “It’s also close to McLaren’s headquarters in Woking, so I can have face-to-face discussions with their guys, which is more productive and makes it easier to understand each other."

“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.”

“From a personal point of view it’s also definitely helpful to be closer to the races in Europe. It would be so tough physically to have to travel back to Sakura all the time!”

Back at Sakura - where Honda Miimo robots cut the lawns and visitors can relax on a Suzuka circuit shaped sofa - Mori’s counterpart is Systems Engineer Keisuke Shoji.

“Mori-san puts together a comprehensive report after each race and sends the information to Sakura,” Shoji says. “Of course that influences what the engineers do here. But I also have my role, which sees me go to the circuit from Sakura and report back what has been learned at the race. So the Sakura side of the operation has information coming in from two different sources.

“I work on every race weekend. I go to half of the races myself and another colleague from Sakura attends the other half. But when I am not at the circuit I am still working all weekend in Mission Control. It’s tiring because it’s normally midnight in Japan!”

Both factories can provide support to the trackside team during race weekends, but Mission Control at Sakura is the most direct link between the facility in Japan and the circuit.

“Mission Control will be manned by myself and someone from the ERS side,” Shoji reveals. “Different department leaders also come to read the data and carry out analysis or give advice. There are so many that sometimes we have 15-20 people in one room.

“The strength of having Mission Control in Sakura is the fact I can quickly contact someone from the different departments if needed. It keeps the whole organisation in close contact with the race team.”

With a season spanning different countries and continents throughout the year, the Honda factory structure enables true global coverage. It brings everyone working on the Formula 1 project closer to the proving ground that is each race weekend. While each factory has its own main responsibilities, Sakura and Milton Keynes also work in tandem to support the relentless development that has delivered tangible progress in 2017.

And with a new partnership for 2018 confirming a long-term commitment to the sport, both facilities share a common goal: To return Honda to the front in Formula 1.