Ayrton Senna was undoubtedly the best Formula One driver of all time and, as of Sunday, the 1st of May, 22 years ago we lost him to a tragic freak accident while on the infamous San Marino Grand Prix in Imola, Italy. After adopting a Honda power plant into his race car when not racing for Formula One, Senna was one of Honda’s most trusted test drivers and his influence partially ushered in the golden era of Honda’s consumer cars. While being directly involved in the engineering of the legendary NSX, F1 victories like his were the catalyst of one of Honda’s best designs, their Double Wishbone Suspension architecture.
After the better part of a decade kicking ass and taking names on the F1 Circuit, in 1986 Honda released F1 Special Editions of their Integra, Accord, Civic and CRX models. These cars featured unique body and interior trim along with the highest performance engines available for the respective platforms. These were fun gimmicky cars but they merely eluded to Honda’s F1 technology rather than feature it. The Third Generation Accord did feature a double wishbone suspension layout, however the car never developed a cult following like the next generation Civic would.
The following year in 1987 Honda began to release their new chassis featuring real technology from their race platforms. With the release of the EF chassis of Civic they switched from an archaic torsion arm suspension design to the Double Wishbone design, which was used for the first time in an affordable car, this generation also saw the adaption of VTEC in the SiR model as well. This was a very smart marketing move as they used their race victories as free advertising along with being proof of concept for the technology, they could also boast that their commuter cars were a cut above the rest by having suspension found only in the most exotic vehicles of the era. While the Torsion Arm suspension was not a terrible design by any means, the double wishbone suspension and independent trailing arm rear suspension took the car to another level.
What makes DW Suspension a superior design though? In short, it minimized the variance in camber while cornering and was used to great avail by many teams during Ayrton Senna’s tenure in Formula One. In long, The design of double wishbone suspension utilizes an upper and lower control arm, which allows the tire to stay square the road surface under much more extreme conditions than a standard McPherson strut can handle. This occurs because instead of having a single control arm which acts as a pivot point the hub can rotate around, there are two pivot points which move in conjunction with each other which have a greater combined area of motion before the hub, and by extension the wheel, begins to rotate.
This new front suspension design combined with the independent trailing arm suspension in the back allowed the EF Civic to achieve greater stability on roads as well. While the car would have relatively high amounts of body roll and softer springs than most other cars, it was actually very hard to lose traction and was much more forgiving when driven at the limit. Over night the EF chassis created a new standard for hot hatch architecture coming into the 90s.
Arm chair automotive suspension design theories are great for internet arguments but in the real world does this suspension make a difference? The independent rear suspension made little difference on the race track but the double wishbone front suspension was the biggest gain to the handling of the car. Even by modern standards FWD track records are almost monopolized by EF, EG, EK Civics and DC chassis Integras with cars like the SS Works and Mightymouse Racing CRX still being seen on leaderboards. Narita Dog Fight has recently also featured various Garage Work Hondas, including Yusuke Tokue’s EK hatch which has recently run a sub 1:00.00 lap time at Tsukuba, a time which 10 years ago was almost only seen by the fastest AWD and RWD track cars in Japan.
Beyond the Honda Civic’s revolutionary use of Double Wishbone suspension, the Honda/Acura NSX also came equipped with double wishbone suspension at all four corners. The suspension on the NSX was actually fine tuned by the legendary Ayrton Senna at the Nürburgring. Originally this was not the plan, as the original test drive by Senna was done by chance since he was testing the McLaren Honda F1 car at the same time Honda was fine tuning the NSX and he found the car to be quite flimsy. After that revelation, Honda went back, stiffened the car and made sure it had his blessing before production. His imput was invaluable as the handling of the NSX was not only the main selling point of the car but also was it’s key to success in motor sports applications.
Motorsports events to date see no shortage of 20 year old Hondas not only keeping up with the AWD Evo and STI juggernauts but often can be seen beating modern Mazdaspeed 3s and GTIs. Honda has remained the kings of Front Wheel Drive and will continue to be in that position for the foreseeable future because they trickle their race technology back into their consumer cars. Next time you take your Civic down a canyon road and remain devoid of any irratic handling or see an NSX, just remember Ayrton Senna and his contribution to the brand name.