The Honda Debate: Would Jenson Be on Top if He Was Powered by Japan?

Patrick AllenAnalyst IAugust 9, 2009

GOYANG, SOUTH KOREA - APRIL 5: A Model poses next to a Honda F1 racing car at the Seoul Motor Show 2007 on April 5, 2007 in Goyang, South Korea. The Seoul Motor Show 2007 will be held in April 6-15, featuring state-of-the-art technologies and concept cars from global automakers. The show is its sixth since the first one was held in 1995. About 186 companies from 10 countries, including auto parts manufacturers and tire makers, will set up booths to showcase trends in their respective industries, and to promote their latest products during the show. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

I cannot for the life of me understand why Honda pulled out of F1 in 2008.  They were struggling in the terrible financial climate, but they had already basically paid for the BGP001.  Yes the ongoing costs to race in 2009 would have been hard, but imagine what a PR boast it would have been to have Honda rise from the ashes in motor sport.  Imagine that softly spoken American guy spouting pseudo-philosophy about Honda coming back stronger than ever…with a huge hot air balloon over Niagara falls in the background (apologies if you‘ve never seen Honda‘s frankly hilarious add campaigns).


Then you come to the issue of engines though.  The Mercedes behind Jenson and Rubens is undoubtedly the best in F1 at the moment, would a Honda be as good?


Of course it isn’t all about the engine; one of Brawn’s biggest advantages came through their fantastic design and the fact they had a whole extra year to draw up plans!  Honda’s engine had been on the back foot anyway in 2008 as along with Renault the RA108 was underpowered and would be allowed a small upgrade for the 2009 campaign.


Would the Honda engine be as fast and reliable as the Mercedes? Probably not.  Would Jenson still have won at least a couple of races? I would say probably yes.  The difficult thing is that the Mercedes is so good.  I really don’t think Honda would have such a strong title challenge with the Japanese power….but on the other hand, perhaps funding from the company throughout the year would count as just as important.


There are so many important factors in this argument (too many in fact).  For example the bureaucracy in the Honda F1 team made decisions take longer and agreements much harder to come by.  The company was prone to appointing their own head-hunted staff, instead of letting experts seek out great technical minds.  The most obvious example of this was Geoff Willis‘s demise as Honda’s technical lead. 


Willis had played a vital role in BAR Honda’s turnaround and success in 2004.  However, he was sidelined and eventually ended up leaving after it became clear that newly appointed chief aerodynamicist Mariano Alperin-Bruvera was top dog.  The decision to appoint Alperin-Bruvera over Willis proved to be fatal.  The new chief may have had a very encouraging background in motorcycle racing, but well, four wheels are very different from two!


The problem was that with the loss of Takuma Sato, the appointment was heavily motivated by a desire to promote Honda back in Japan.  Now I love Japanese cars and I’m fascinated by their culture, and whilst I obviously realise that a Japanese team should have Japanese employees...Japanese companies more often than not seem to cut their noses off to spite their faces.


Nakajima may be coming good now, but for a long time people have been asking "what the hell is this guy doing in an F1 car?"  The answer is because Toyota want a Japanese bloke in a Japanese powered car.


The best example I can think of in comparison is my soccer team, Tottenham Hotspur.  In the 1970s spurs tried to build a team of not just Englishmen, but Londoners.  This may sound great in theory, but Tottenham floundered in practice.


Yes, home grown talent is important, but it’s a big old world and in the world of sport where being the best is everything, it shouldn’t matter what nationality you are! 


I have no doubt that there are thousands of Japanese engineers capable of producing a Championship winning car…..BUT LET THE EXPERTS PICK THEM!!


Ross Brawn would certainly have had his hands tied if Honda had stayed in and who knows whether Honda would have put in as much money as in the past.  One thing I am interested in though is the way the season has so clearly progressed.


Look at Red Bull, McLaren, and Ferrari.  At the beginning of the year Red Bull were very strong, but nowhere near Brawn.  Ferrari were dismal and it was widely believed that the McLaren was actually dangerous!


Now think back over the last couple of races.  Red Bull have developed into the best team on the grid.  Ferrari, have slowly but surely re-grouped and climbed back up and McLaren have even won a bloody race!


Yes all three of these teams have great minds and determination behind them…..but they also have money….lots and lots of money.  Why didn’t Honda do this sort of thing in 2007 and 2008 you ask? Well they had the cash, but not the minds and the regulations were very different.


Now look at the three big title contenders from the start of the season.  Brawn, Williams, and Toyota.  Now Toyota is a difficult one, it’s a Japanese team but I don’t think the bureaucracy is quite as bad as it was at Honda.  I think when it comes to Toyota F1 the technical expertise just isn’t as strong.  However, arguably Toyota may well be putting in significantly less money as the team begins to flounder; (I will not be surprised if Toyota are not on the grid in 2010).  As for Brawn and Williams? Well I think they are running out of cash.


It does disgust me how much of sport is dictated by money.  Look at Real Madrid in soccer.  The team is owned by the Spanish Royal family and basically has a blank cheque book.  Whilst It is interesting to see Ferrari and McLaren fight their way back up, in the back of my mind I am, money, money.


For the 2006 Season, Honda F1 Racing had 30 sponsors including my personal favourite, Ray-Ban, but more importantly giant sponsors Lucky Strike and Honda.


The loss of Lucky Strike in 2006 was significant, but Honda managed to obtain 39 sponsors in 2007 including the Universal music group.  However, remember more sponsors didn’t mean more money as without being on display they were willing to pay less.  The Honda led earth image may have been a lovely thought and granted would have been a great PR machine if Honda were able to win races; but the new earth car failed to even make the points!


This created a lose, lose situation.  Potential sponsors were turned off by the car’s pace and a lack of visual representation on the car; (frankly most of the 2007 sponsors were probably pleased not to have their names on the car). 


2008 was much the same and although many of the sponsors that were still with the Honda at the end of that fateful season stayed on as sponsors for Brawn GP, (including Bridgestone and other manufacturing brands), there was still no title sponsor to provide the real hard cash.


Early on in the 2009 season Brawn GP obtained various sponsor deals.  One of the first sponsors to be announced was British clothing manufacturer Henri Lloyd.  Then basically coinciding with the first race in Australia, Richard Branson announced Virgin as a major sponsor for the team.


As the results began to flood in and Brawn began to dominate, partnerships began to form with new groups such as MIG Investments, and old friends Ray-Ban, Endless Advance, and NCE.  Before long, a new supplier deal with safety harness supplier Willans was agreed.


For the Spanish GP, Sony Pictures joined the team for a short period to advertise upcoming film Terminator Salvation (though unfortunately having the movie on the Championship car did not help it on the review pages!).


Now much as it pains me to type this, I am not a member of the Brawn GP team, neither was I an employee of Honda F1.  Therefore bear in mind the fact that I do not know what is going on behind closed doors and that I haven’t really got a clue who is going to be on the BGP car next year.  I can only pass on what I have read and what I think.


I can be pretty sure that Virgin will not be on Brawn’s car next year.  I don’t know why this irritates me as much as it does.  I mean for God sake if it wasn’t for Virgin’s sponsorship Brawn would be in a very difficult position.  I just feel that Branson wants to be on this flash in the pan success train and make no firm commitments until he’s sure that Brawn will be a top team for years to come.


Their semi-official reasoning is apparently because the cost as too big a hurdle, but they don‘t have to be the primary sponsor…do they?


There are rumours that Google co-founder Larry Page is considering a deal with an F1 team in 2010.  I would think that the new American team would be their first point of call, but apparently Page wants the Google name to appear on a race-winning team (that’s not to discount the American outfit, I just think if Google are going to jump in, they probably want to jump into a Champion team).


Anyway, what does all this mean?  Well as Brawn GP slowly slip down the rankings I have to say I think this is because they are struggling to keep up with the big budgets of the likes of McLaren and Ferrari.


This is not me trying to make excuses for Brawn’s poor form recently.  I am merely trying to understand why this has happened.


Would Brawn GP be able to keep up financially with the backing of Honda? Maybe, but on the other hand…would Brawn GP be the same well run and efficient team if they were being constantly watched over by Japan?


In conclusion, I love the Mercedes in the back of the Brawn, but the Japanese motoring fan in me misses the Honda logos.  Brawn need to sort out a title sponsor and fast…..with the economy looking slightly better at the moment will Honda consider a comeback for 2010? Remember, Brawn have no concrete deal with Mercedes at the moment. 


I think everything comes down to the Championship standings on Nov. 1.  If Brawn and Jenson are on top, surely a big, committed title sponsor will come a-knocking…if not...well I don’t want to think about Brawn’s chances for 2010.