Takefumi Hosaka Managing director at Honda R&D Co. Ltd. For Takefumi Hosaka, Saturday the 12th of March will be one of the biggest days of his career. The 50-year-old executive, together with 15 of his juniors, plans to be in Melbourne for the 16th running of the Australian Grand Prix.

The date marks Honda's return to Formula One racing and is the first of 17 Formula One races on this year's calendar.

When the company withdrew from F-1 in 1992 it was king of the mountain, having won six consecutive constructor's championships separately with Williams and McLaren. This time Honda must take on 'Team' Williams/McLaren, currently the world's No.1, which itself faces strong challenges from Ferrari and BMW. Complicating matters, Honda's partner, British American Racing, finished last in 1999.

Team leader Mr. Hosaka, a managing director at Honda R&D Co. Ltd., is playing his cards close to his vest. "Naturally we want to win, but it won't be easy," he warns. "Even if we do everything right from a technical standpoint and achieve all of our individual goals, no one can predict the outcome of a race."

Analysts are more optimistic, citing reports that Honda plans to spend close to $1 billion over the next five years to reclaim its title. "With that sort of investment, there's no question they'll become an instant contender," declares one observer.

Win or lose in March, Mr. Hosaka, like many of his predecessors at Honda R&D, sees racing as a proving ground for new technologies and, more importantly, Honda's younger engineers. "We need to test their abilities. What better way than under racing conditions!"

Implied but not stated, racing also is a proving ground for senior management - namely Mr. Hosaka. Since the company's inception, all Honda presidents have been involved in racing of one form or another.

Tadashi Kume and Nobuhiko Kawamoto made their reputations in Formula One.

Mr. Hosaka, who oversees a select team of 150 engine and chassis engineers from his office in Utsunomiya, 60 miles north of Tokyo, advises that this year's effort is more complex than any previous Honda undertaking. He says, "It involves much more than development and supply of engines (as was the case from 1983 to 1992, the company's most recent F-1 experience). This time we need to develop new materials, new chassis, new electrical controls and, ultimately, a new total management system."

And that, explains Mr. Hosaka, will require the development and deployment of a satellite communication system, spanning all the continents of the world, to analyze problems as they arise during a race and recommend countermeasures. He offered no time frame, but the direction is clear.

Born in northern Japan in Akita, Mr. Hosaka's love affair with engines and cars began when he was eight. "I remember the day as clear as if it were today," he says. "My father brought home a small electric motor, then called me over and hooked up the connectors to a battery. Suddenly it started, and I was hooked."

That initial experience led to a lifelong infatuation with models, go-carts and special machines. In the process, he learned English, as many of his acquisitions could only be assembled if he read the English instructions.

Mr. Hosaka joined Honda R&D, not Honda, right out of college. It wasn't easy.

He explains that even today young engineers "have to do everything by themselves. They must change all sorts of heavy parts including blocks, (cylinder) heads, crank shafts and connecting rods. It's dirty and it's tough. Some quit. But those who stick it out learn what an engine is. They learn how it works."

In fact, Mr. Hosaka's career offers a snapshot of how things work at Honda R&D. A series of complaints directed to his superiors in the late 1980s landed him a job as product development manager at the Tochigi R&D Center.

There, he and a small team came up with the preliminary concepts for what eventually became the S2000, SM-X and Step Wagon.

Then in 1995, he was transferred to Honda R&D Americas Inc. in Los Angeles, only to be ordered back in the summer of 1997 because former Honda R&D president/now Honda Motor President Hiroyuki Yoshino thought he was getting 'soft.' Back in Japan, he became informal leader, then formal leader, of a project team to resurrect Honda's Formula One racing program.

Mr. Hosaka currently lives alone in a rental house near the Tochigi center. His family, like many when there's a child in school (he has an 18-year-old daughter), chose not to move to be with him. Daily, when not away on business, he drives to work in a Mercedes SLK, his dream car.

Like his junior colleagues at Honda R&D, he puts in 12 hour days.

TOKYO - As the Japanese auto industry turns the corner into the new millennium, a change is taking place in the engineering field. A new management elite is emerging, one more cosmopolitan, internationally experienced and bilingual than previously watched over the industry.

Representing this new executive elite corps are Takefumi Hosaka, managing director at Honda R&D Co. Ltd., Akira Kijima, board member and vice corporate general manager of car research and development at Mitsubishi Motors Corp., and Shiro Nakamura, design director at Nissan Motor Co.

All three are expected to make a difference at their respective organizations for years to come. Mr. Hosaka, head of Honda's Formula One racing program, is vintage Honda - smart, confident and possessing a love of technology. To the extent that racing remains an integral part of Honda's corporate culture, he could very well join the ranks of senior management.

Likewise, Mr. Kijima, chief proponent of Mitsubishi's direct-injection gasoline engine, is a pivotal player in the company's mid-term restructuring plan, while Mr. Nakamura, Nissan's new design chief, is one of the keys to the automaker's revival. Despite an extensive technological base, Nissan lags the industry in styling. Analysts claim it has no chance to return to its past prominence unless it adds more excitement to its lineup.