Monday, December 8, 2008

Honda's Earth Dreams Shattered

Sunday 7th December 2008

For a motorsport season that saved its biggest drama for the final seconds of the final race, the announcement that Honda are quitting F1 saved the biggest surprise till last.

On Friday they announced that they were dramatically scaling back their F1 activities till March of next year, after which they hope to have found a buyer for the team.

With global car sales suddenly falling off a cliff the world over, should it have been such a shock? Honda sales are down and they are shutting their massive Swindon factory for February and March of next year. BMW sales are down 25% year-on-year and that's only going to get worse. And FIA President Max Mosley has been banging on for years that unless F1 cuts its costs manufacturers are going to leave.

In a way he's right and in a way he's wrong. Even Honda didn't see this one coming and the company's reaction was a management firefighting decision and an advertising and PR disaster. "We are sorry, it is a big let down for the fans and all concerned, but you have to understand that the sale of cars took a big dip - especially in November," explained Honda CEO Takeo Fukui. "All around the world, the November sales went down massively - beyond our imagination. This decision did not exist in September definitely. The team were ready for 2009 and they were doing their best efforts, and we decided against them.

So it was clearly a last-minute knee-jerk reaction that led to their withdrawal from F1, not a studied evaluation. However Honda are not cancelling their involvement in MotoGP or Indycars, which would back up Mosley's argument that F1 is just too costly compared to other forms of motorsport.

It's a PR disaster because Honda have been carefully building their brand on being a forward-looking technology company, with the Asimov robot etc, and then the second that car sales drop, they abandon the whole F1 enterprise. Just as F1 starts to embrace road car technology.

We've been here before. In 2004 Ford pulled the plug on the Jaguar team after their performances trailed off and the commercial team failed to find a title sponsor for the following season. At the same time the Jaguar road car division was announcing 1,150 job cuts and restructuring at their main plant in Coventry.

Instead of increasing the allure of the marque, Jaguar's involvement in F1 was seen as detracting from the brand. For Honda, even though there was anticipation that they could make serious strides forward in 2009, the damage had already been done.

Plastering the car with their own Earth Dreams logos may have given them a great corporate presence (when the TV cameras found them), but the commercial riskiness of not having a Vodafone or an ING or a Panasonic on board has bitten them as it bit Jaguar.

The great news for any aspiring F1 team owner (such as ProDrive) is that they could come in and pick up a top F1 outfit for very little money, providing they can convince Ross Brawn to stay on and don't have to pick up Jenson Button's multi-million pound driver contract.

Brawn has been busy telling Autosport how optimistic he is for the forthcoming 2009 season.

"I am committed to this programme to see it through to the end, whatever that might be. I am committed for all sorts of reasons because it is a very good team here, nice people and they have worked very hard on this car. And it would be wrong of me to do anything but stay here and support the efforts to keep it alive.

"Whether I stay here long term is another matter. It depends on the level of the team, the new owners, whether I want to work with them. I don't have any great interest in scratching around the back of the grid so if unfortunately the team cannot find owners who have the ability or aspirations to compete, then I will see it through and we will go from there.

"The thing with the new regulations is that there will be quite a big of disparity between the teams, especially to begin with, and if the constraints on wind tunnel testing which we (FOTA) are debating now come into force, then the chance for massive catch up will be lessened. So I think there is still every chance that we can be very competitive next year."

ProDrive's David Richard's will never have a better opportunity to take on a top team, that is based not too far from him, with a driver (Jenson Button) he knows and has supported in the past, when he was briefly at BAR.

The question is will Jenson be prepared to drive for a lot less money? Honda have signed a big money contract with him for at least 2009 (and very likely 2010 with an option on 2011). Honda CEO Takeo Fukui has said they are prepared to enter talks to undo Jenson's contract. We bet they are. Whether Honda provide a racing car for him or not they will have contracted his services for the next two years at what some estimate to be a minimum of $15m a season. The new team could have Rubens Barrichello (now 3kgs lighter) for a fifth of that - and Bruno Senna for a fifth of what they pay Barrichello.

Button knows that the 2009 chassis will be a good one. What he's had in the past is a big salary and a car not worthy of it. This year he might have to consider a much smaller salary, but a car that could actually bring him results and show off his talents. The big question marks are who will fund the team, and what effect will there be when they stick a non-Honda engine in the 2009 chassis? All the development has been built around a Honda unit, and though Brawn is trying to sound as optimistic as he can, that is the big unknown.

If David Richards does want to buy the team he needs to start talking to his bank manager straight away, before key personnel start getting picked off by the circling vultures. They're over Brackley already...

Andrew Davies

Source : Planet F1

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