Interview with Koji Watanabe, President of HRC

On May 24, 2023, Honda announced its full return to the F1 World Championship starting in 2026, this time in the form of supplying power units to the Aston Martin Aramco Cognizant Formula One® Team.

Interview with Koji Watanabe, President of HRC

The major change, compared with Honda's F1 activities over the past four seasons, is that HRC will be responsible for Honda's F1 activities as a racing company. We asked Koji Watanabe, the HRC President, about the differences from Honda’s previous F1 activities, his thoughts on the Honda/HRC brand, and the progress of the new HRC, which integrated its four-wheel racing activities since 2022.

-Please explain again what it means for HRC to be involved in F1 activities.

Watanabe: A new corporate organization has been established to carry out F1 activities, which is very significant. Until now, our activities have been projects, gathering people and money, disbanding when the project was over, and repeating. However, going forward, we (HRC) will be responsible for the racing company’s activities. Being a company, of course, we have a budget that includes expenses for technological development with an eye to the future, such as sustainable carbon-neutral fuels, high-performance motors, batteries, and so on.

Even in our partnership with the Aston Martin F1 Team, our goal is not only to support the parent company, but also to make HRC as close to independent profitability as possible. This will lead to our continued F1 activities. How much profit will we generate in the future? Well, although it would be best to be profitable from our racing activities alone, this reality is not likely. Therefore, we would like to increase HRC's brand value by achieving solid results in our racing activities first, and then create HRC's own unique merchandise and services to achieve independent profitability in the future.

-This must be a big challenge for HRC, but to begin with, what kind of career have you had so far?

Watanabe: I joined Honda in 1987, when the influence of F1 was very strong, and I was inspired by it. My feelings were that if I work for a company, it should be Honda. I also wanted to work overseas to achieve a more global vision. Honda's policy of "go overseas as much as possible while you are young" was another reason I decided to join the company. I was that type of person often considering "how to win people's hearts" and "what exactly should I do for that?". It was obvious when I joined Honda that my great desire was to be involved in motor sports, overseas business, and communications. In fact, when I was in my 20s and 30s, I was assigned to the Public Relations Department for Motorsports and was stationed overseas for a total of 18 years.

Afterwards I was appointed to lead Honda's Brand Communication Department, then to the executive role for motorsports, and now I am the president of a racing company. I believe my career has fulfilled all three of my dreams. However, this is not the end of the story. There were many things I learned and wanted to realize while working in these three areas. For example, I would like to combine my experiences in motorsports, overseas business, and communications to further enhance Honda's brand power, build a foundation for HRC to become independently profitable, create a strong organization, train future generations, and many more.

There is no end to my dreams, and I know that my insatiable fascination will continue.

"The Power of Dreams" and "How we move you"

Were there many unique products in Honda when you first joined?

Watanabe: CIVIC, PRELUDE, and many other cool vehicles were all around us. We were able to work on these products without distractions. When the automobile industry became more marketing-driven, vehicles started to resemble others and their individuality faded away. For this reason, for the past two years, we have been discussing "What direction should Honda take in the future?” As a result, we decided to reconsider our slogan, and we returned to "The Power of Dreams".

I believe this slogan is more than 20 years old.

Watanabe: Yes, that's right. We started discussions to change that, but in the end, we returned to The Power of Dreams. Then we questioned ourselves, "Can we make it a little clearer? Shouldn't we have more discussions about where we want to go? That's when we came up with the phrase "How we move you".

The Honda brand began with our founder Soichiro Honda's stance of "For the customer " and "For the world and for the people". Therefore, the altruistic aspect of the brand was supposed to be strong. However, as being altruistic can lead to the loss of individuality, there were some opinions that we should be more egocentric. These two aspects clashed, and now we are trying to be more egocentric.

“Product-out” is that direction, isn't it?

Watanabe: That's right. When we say "Dreams," whose "Dreams" are they? Currently, it is more about "making our customers' dreams come true”. But we also have passion to "create the car of our dreams”. This time, we are inclined to the latter, including the description of "the mobility of our dreams".

It would be ideal if the "dream" of the manufacturer and the "dream" of the consumers coincide, correct?

Watanabe: You are absolutely right.

Where is the "new HRC" towards having the four-wheel business integrated?

Please tell us again about the four concepts of HRC announced in 2022.

Watanabe: First is to further elevate the Honda brand through HRC's motorsports activities. Second is continuing our commitment to sustainable carbon neutrality. Third is contributing to Honda's motorcycle (two-wheel) and automobile (four-wheel) business by motorsports activities, which is very important. In particular, four-wheel motorsports activities have had little linkage with our business so far. Going forward, we expect this category to make solid contributions to our business. This is essential for us to continue our motorsports activities as a company. Lastly, we want to let a wide range of customers enjoy themselves. Not only watching races but participating in racing schools and one-make races, lining up base cars for customer races will provide opportunities and environment for more customers to enjoy racing, as well as expanding the base of motorsports. These are our four main objectives.

With the integration of the four-wheel division in 2022, HRC will be a "two-wheel and four-wheel racing company," which I find globally unique.

Watanabe: Probably the only one in the world.

The four-wheel division was added subsequently, but how are the two divisions working together?

Watanabe: Inside Honda the cultures of two-wheel and four-wheel are quite different. Therefore, we started with the understanding that it would be somewhat challenging to work together as a company. In fact, it took the entire first year to complete the integration because everything was different, such as operation, structure, purchasing systems, etc. In the second year, we are beginning to make progress in the collaboration between the two-wheel and four-wheel categories. Presently, the stagnation of MotoGP is a major issue for Honda/HRC, so we have determined to regain our strength with an all-HRC structure. To this end, the four-wheel development team is involved in MotoGP development, and is moving to produce tangible results as soon as possible.

On the other hand, Two-wheel has a long history as a racing company, so we know races and race operations. Two-wheel also has established a business model where HRC makes race parts and delivers them via dealers for users. The four-wheel business is just beginning to develop this aspect. There is much to learn from motorcycles in terms of such know-how. In that sense, I am convinced that the collaboration between motorcycles and automobiles will produce something even greater than we initially expected.

HPD (Honda Performance Development) in the U.S. has developed the Acura-brand "Beast" (a pipe frame version of the 2023 CR-V Hybrid, a production vehicle. This promotional vehicle, which also has a twin-turbocharged engine for Indy cars and a hybrid system), has attracted worldwide attention, and is trying something quite interesting in the best sense of the word.

Watanabe: That was very Honda-like and wonderful, and I think HPD is becoming more and more like a racing company. I think they now have the technical capability to quickly develop a production-based race car that could compete in the Super Taikyu. In that sense, we would like to strengthen our cooperation with HPD, learn from them, and enhance our value as a racing company.

Even if the technology is not sharp, we can create impressive racing cars and racing categories that will surprise the world, depending on our ideas. So you want to nurture human resources that can realize such things?

Watanabe: That's what I mean. I want people to work with their hands and create new things, not just sit at their desks and create materials. That is the kind of culture, organization, and people we want to nurture at HRC from now on. The symbolic presence that embodies this is the "F1 Activity," which will begin in 2026. Honda/HRC's goal in racing is to share the joy of achieving new directions with our fans, with F1 activities at the forefront.

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